There’s no substitute for knowledge.”

Years ago, I heard W. Edwards Deming say this several times throughout a four-day workshop on Total Quality Management. Now I repeat this same phrase in every university class I teach. It’s a powerful principle and it’s key to improvement, whether the focus is on safety, productivity, quality, or relationship-building.

But how do we obtain knowledge? That’s the focus of my ISHN contribution this month and next.

Knowledge comes in many forms. It’s public or personal, it’s objective or subjective, it’s understood or misunderstood, it’s useful or useless, it’s considered or ignored, and so on. My purpose is not to explore various types of knowledge, but simply to consider how we gain knowledge for improving workplace safety. Bottom line: We need to ask more questions.

Why ask?

Let’s begin with the end in mind. Why should we ask more questions about safety? Here are five benefits:

1) To “Always Seek Knowledge”

Here’s the most obvious reason for asking: “Always Seek Knowledge (ASK).” You learn about other people’s behaviors, attitudes, feelings, and perceptions by asking them directly.

Sure, you usually have a personal opinion about why someone is taking a risk, ignoring procedures, and so on. But ask for the other person’s perspective first. Even though the reaction might sound defensive, accept it as knowledge you need to completely comprehend the situation. Then, after showing genuine appreciation for the other person’s outlook, you can expect that person to consider your interpretation.

2) To show you care

Our busy lives often prevent us from taking the time to ask more than, “How are you doing?” and listen to anything more than, “I’m okay, thanks for asking.” We might take more time if we realized the powerful impact of asking.

For example, Joanne, a safety pro, was asked to give an orientation session to four new employees of the construction division of her company. She gave a brief overview of the company and reviewed standard safety rules and guidelines. Then she initiated lively discussion by asking each employee their viewpoints about safety and their job expectations. The two-hour orientation expanded to a four-hour sharing of personal experiences.

Joanne told me she learned valuable information about the interests and talents of four different individuals, and she answered thoughtful questions from her audience. The knowledge gained from this interactive asking process enabled her to customize the safety information, making the material more meaningful and relevant.

3) To raise self-esteem

Joanne’s interest in asking personal questions likely enhanced some of the new hires’ self-esteem. Whenever you ask a person advice or a personal opinion, you pump up their sense of self-worth. This is especially true when the person doing the asking is respected and credible. In this situation, for example, a person might think, “The experienced safety professional for this company is asking for my opinion. I must be important in her eyes.”

4) To obtain feedback

Only with feedback can you improve your performance. Sometimes your behavior provides natural ongoing feedback — when you see the results of painting with a brush, writing with a pen, or hitting a golf ball. In most cases, though, you don’t get enough natural feedback for optimal performance. Even artistic and written expression benefits greatly from critiques.

Much of the feedback needed for competence-building is extrinsic, often coming from an observer. For example, a behavioral coaching process can assure the safe performance of a whole work team through interpersonal observation and feedback (for more on behavioral coaching for safety, see my ISHN article for May of 1996).

Leaders who want to develop a continuous improvement mindset throughout their work culture should periodically ask for feedback about their own performance. The more interpersonal feedback requested and given throughout a workplace, the more performance improvement is possible, whether for safety, productivity, quality, or relationship building.

5) To improve personal impact

By asking for feedback you improve your competence, and you stand to make a bigger positive difference in your role as a safety and health professional. You can also enhance your impact by asking for more support. Do you ever resist asking for certain support because you assume the worst?

A friend and safety pro for a successful company is extremely passionate about learning as much as possible about the prevention of occupational injuries. I periodically inform him about upcoming professional development conferences that provide outstanding opportunities to add useful strategies to his “safety tool box.” The reaction I usually get is, “Oh, my company won’t allow me to count conference attendance as work time, and they certainly won’t cover my expenses.”

Maybe a request for support is a long shot, but why not ask anyway? Many of us hold back our requests for support because we fear rejection. We ruminate to ourselves, “Why waste time on a lost cause?” My ISHN contribution next month will address this issue, including effective ways to ask for support.