When asked about experience of speaking up at work, people voice similar themes:
“We do speak up but nobody listens”.
“I spoke up too much in my last job then my role was made redundant”.
“I speak up all the time, and now I am labelled a whinger”.
“It’s too risky to speak up –my family depend on me”
Scepticism about speak-up cultures abound – and this is not surprising because they challenge the complicated and risky set of power relationships that form any organisation. “Power” as we all know, does not give up its control easily.
In an ideal world:
1. A speak-up culture is one in which people feel empowered to speak up without consequence (Anyone familiar with the outcome of whistleblowing knows that consequences too often lead to very real dangers to the persons’ livelihood and well being)
2. Speaking up implies there is a listener with more power/influence as well as the courage to act (the need for courage is handed on to the recipient/leader along with the sensitive information. Unfortunately, examples from regulators show that leaders who turn a blind eye whether strategically or for self-interest are far too common)
3. Speaking up implies a speaker has good intentions, has in mind the good of others (and not just themselves) and is mentally sound. (the first finger of blame is pointed back on the truth-teller – rightly and/or wrongly)
4. Speaking up implies that there is a “truth”. Who speaks is as important as what is spoken. (So much is dismissed by the ‘powers that be’ as “just your perception” when they are faced with a truth. Furthermore, what is true or not is now compounded in our “post-truth” world).
5. A speak-up culture is not just about speaking up. It is about responsiveness -reciprocity. One cannot not respond. Not responding is a response – usually a response of power and control.
Leading in a Speak-up Culture
The Listening End
1. Listening is central to leadership
Listening is increasingly more essential in our transparent, complex, hyper-connected world. Research shows that overdoing of command/control -TELL)leadership leads to over-compliance and this can be as treacherous as non-compliance. Compliance and governance are essential but a potent recipe for unhealthy risk is when people are not encouraged to think and question AND there are leaders who don’t listen.
2. Power’s Advantage – it’s the role as well as the person:
Position gifts power. This is not just personal, but positional – the role given to you by the organisation. People are silenced as much by your position as by you. Also, if you have been given a leadership position you, personally, are gifted power. How you respond to this is personal. Power/influence feel good but they need to be used wisely. Your response-ability is great, both as a leader in a role and as a person.
3. The Transparency Factor: your brand travels before you
In the transparency of our hyper-connected world, your reputation as a leader walks many steps ahead of you. One downside of leadership is being observed carefully and closely. Now the news of these observations travel quickly and far. You are what you are seen to do! What you model in any moment, is what you will be known for.
The Speaking End
4. Power’s Advantage leads to easily to silence:
Speaking up is never easy. Power reigns through dominance of airtime. In the face of this, it is easier to remain silent and in the shadows. But words and actions are public and they demand a response. Speaking out attracts others and this in turn encourages speaking up.
5. Think before you speak and be moved from the heart
People will first speak out to trusted colleagues and friends. Through this they can strategise and prepare to speak well. And, the opposite is also true! There is nothing more powerful than a spontaneous protest that comes from the heart in the name of our common good and purpose.
5. Stand FOR something (rather than only standing against)
So often people who speak up, stand against something but do not articulate what they are speaking FOR. This means standing for what is right rather than because the other is wrong. It can mean standing for a common goal or purpose, and questioning an action (rather than a person). And, most importantly it means engaging in a civilised discussion that emanates from love/loyalty/respect for what we share, rather than the hate/greed/self-interest that divides us.
And finally, if you are still feeling sceptical, congratulations! This is not easy, and there are no easy fixes. But we need to keep striving!