Occupational Safety

Curiosity did not kill the cat

Ask questions that truly matter.

6 minutes02/17/2023

Prof. Dr. Andrew Sharman

Most leaders simply tell workers what to do. Some tell them how to do stuff. Very few leaders take the time to explain why something is important.

Over the last 25 years of working in safety, I can’t help but wonder how many leaders really understand why safety is important—to their organizations, to their people, to themselves. Sure, I hear many asserting “Safety first” or offering that “Safety is our top priority!”, though rarely do I see this being truly lived in practice.

Are leaders focusing on the wrong thing when they communicate? As management guru Stephen Covey said: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood".

When it comes to understanding safety, many leaders ask questions that are a waste of their breath. I’ve heard them—a million times now—at the start of a meeting or on Safety Walks as the leader sets of to their once-a-week/once-a-month/once-in-a-blue-moon tour on the shop floor:

"Is everything safe?"

"Any safety issues here?"

"Do you have any health and safety suggestions?"

Rarely, if ever, do these questions produce any meaningful dialogue as workers respond with a quiet nod or shrug, and the leaders walk on.  
Do people ask these pointless questions because they believe that old proverb, that "curiosity killed the cat?" Maybe it’s more than that...  

In her studies on leadership, American author Brené Brown suggests that "Curiosity builds connection… Connection gives meaning to our lives…[and] Connection is why we are here." Brown argues that many leaders lack the courage to be truly curious.

Psychologist define curiosity as ‘wanting to know’. That’s is. And this simple definition fits well with our common sense, doesn’t it? In fact, ‘wanting to know’ implies a quest or a search for information. Curiosity didn’t kill any cats. And it doesn’t like rules and systems. It rejects procedures and processes. Curiosity loves meandering, diversion and impulsive left runs. Like cats, curiosity is hungry; the more you feed it, the more it wants.  

Science starts with curiosity. So does love, friendship, fun, conversation…and I’d argue so does safety, too. What if your management Safety Walks were a ‘search for information’? How about instead of making inspections and walkarounds, you engaged in "Curiosity Conversations" with your people?

Curiosity isn’t just a way of understanding the world; it’s a way of changing it, too. So, in this brave new world, why is safety important to you? What is it that you want to know about safety in your organization? And to which questions do you need to find the answers?

The problem

"Any safety issues?"

We’ve all heard it. At the end of the Team  
Talk, the start of the Leadership Team  
meeting, on the shop-floor Safety Walk...  
sometimes they even mean it, sometimes  
they actually want to know.  

But the response is always the same:

Nada, Zilch, Zero, Silence,  
A shoulder shrug, a sideways glance,  
a slight shake of the head.


All these deeply-experienced operators,  
well-trained managers, high-flying  
executives—and they have nothing...?

And whilst the tumbleweed rolls through,  
And the clocks tick-tocks along, and the  
manager checks the box to say  
"all safe
another worker dies, somewhere. And then  
another. Every ten seconds.

And then it’s your turn: The phone rings in  
the middle of the night. The police arrive.  
Paramedics are already busy. Machines are  
switched off. People are crying...  
The days drag on. The investigators take  
meticulous notes. The lawyers argue.  
You don’t sleep... 

“Why didn’t someone say anything?  
Why did no-one speak up? Why did  
They stay silent? Why did we wait until  
someone got hurt?”