The importance of speaking up and encouraging your team to speak up
There is more to diversity than age, ethnicity or gender. For organizations to reap the creative problem-solving benefits of an inclusive workforce they need to hear from everyone. People, whatever their background, outlook, or mindset should be encouraged to ‘speak up’, and organizations encouraged to create the safe spaces where they are able to do so.
This idea of ‘speaking up’ can play a vital role for the individual too, where one’s ‘voice’ is a key part of what one’s reputation, career progression and personal fulfilment are built on.
It is no longer feasible for small, insular management teams to solve the complex problems faced by organizations today. The collective intelligence of the workforce, along with external stakeholder input, is essential to sustainable, long-term success. In principle, with our less hierarchical, more ‘democratic’ management structures, there should be no barriers to diverse voices being heard. In practice, individual inhibition, fear of ‘scary’ or intimidating managers, and discouraging corporate cultures, often do present serious barriers.
From sexual harassment cases to the safety failures of the Boeing 737 Max, there are far too many examples where a fear of ‘speaking truth to power’ has had calamitous results. Failure to expose malpractice is the high-profile consequence, but silence and unquestioning compliance has a more general deleterious effect on all aspects of corporate culture – hindering communication, innovation and performance.
Through our research, which recently culminated in our book ‘Speak Up; Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard’ (FT Publishing), we have identified many of the barriers and motivators that either stymie or encourage speaking up and the equally important capacity to really listen.
Some organizations have instituted whistle-blower hotlines or Friday ‘pizza with the boss’ sessions. Largely we think these, and other formalised listening, consultation and training exercises – though well-intentioned – are too simplistic. Nor is it enough to just ask people to ‘speak up’ and leaders to ‘engage in conversations’. The key is for leaders to fully understand the relational power, and systemic dynamics in their organization, and then to ensure these dynamics are working towards creating a culture of psychological safety – where team members feel free and motivated to speak openly and where they are truly listened to.
Here are seven implications drawn from our research findings which can have a real impact on ‘speaking up’ in your organisation:
The courage of individual employees is of course a factor in their willingness to speak up, as is employee engagement. But our research suggests the listener is as essential to the process as the speaker and the relational power dynamic between the two is key. The choices to speak and listen are influenced by our perception of relative power, status and authority and the systemic patterns of ‘labelling’ ourselves and others in the organization.
Clearly, not everyone can contribute to every discussion or be at every meeting. So, while being inclusive and open to diverse voices is vital, it is also important to be mindful about the ‘rules of exclusion’ – i.e. who is consulted about what – so that these are seen to be fair and transparent.
Beyond this, bearing in mind that innovative ideas can come from all parts of the organization, encouraging all employees to speak up should be an organizational imperative in a competitive marketplace. It is also a personal imperative – our choices about what to say at work determine our reputation, career progression, engagement and personal fulfilment. And our capacity to listen makes us better leaders and colleagues.
Hult Ashridge Executive Education helps organizations around the world improve their leadership talent, strategic thinking and organizational culture.