We all aspire to a workplace we are proud of; one in which we are valued for our contributions and our input.
A workplace with a “speak-up” culture is one in which people feel able to view their concerns and opinions, to engage in robust conversations, to give feedback to others and to have their ideas valued (even though they may not be acted upon).
Both formally and informally, leadership has a significant role in driving and maintaining a speak-up culture. Formally, leadership needs to provide resources for understanding the cultural mechanisms that assist/resist openness, feedback, critical thinking and the raising of concerns. Informally, leaders need to realise that they model, in every moment, through their own behaviour, “how things are really done around here”.
However, there is another element to culture. As well as formal leaders and their behaviours, any culture has its informal leaders – the ‘go-to’ people that others access if they have a problem or an issue to resolve. Research shows that given a choice between the stranger expert who will know, and the trusted colleague that might, it is the latter that people go to. Sometimes the advice given by a trusted colleague does not fit the organisational regulations, procedures and values, and this is why misinformation circulates and risk is escalated. Sadly most often the response is another policy or procedure rather than an examination of the influence of culture.
Furthermore, when culture is addressed, attempts to change it through the traditional cascaded process, or even through cultural diagnostics will fail while the informal network goes unrecognised. To change a culture one needs to understand how it is transmitted – through the informal hidden network of alliances and relationships both in work and outside. John Kotter said … to achieve an organisational transformation we must appreciate the power of the informal network to resist change. I would add we need to appreciate the power of the informal network to act also as a positive catalyst for change – if it is included and invited to participate.
1.The first step is to identity the ‘go-to’ people and invite them as partners/advocates to help drive the change. We find co-designing interventions with cultural influencers models our objective as well as helping make our material relevant to the employee at the front line (who has a very different experience to that of a leader).
2. The second step is to upskill these cultural influencers in the skills and tools of wise decision making and robust conversations – including constructive argumentation (instead of opinion dumping) and ritual dissent (a phrase coined by David Snowden in his Cynefin Framework, which enables people to disagree in an non-personal way).
Some other inputs we have found useful in helping fashion a speak-up culture are mindfulness of ones own moral foundations (Jonathan Haidt’s work), the importance of taking the perspective of other as well as your own (Hannah Arendt’s, ‘a visiting imagination’), and the space to question custom, policy and procedure in a discerning way (critical thinking) – which leads me to the third step….
3. A speak-up culture is one of respectful dialogue. Many people in organisations tell me they speak up (often to their detriment) but rarely are they ‘heard’, nor do they get a response. A speak up culture is one in which there is reciprocity. Listening is the life partner of speaking up. Leaders who listen and respond mindfully (code word for being non-defensive) are necessary to the success of a speak-up culture.
When the courage required to speak ‘truth to power’ is a ‘cultural norm’ and your people feel heard and valued for their input (even when you don’t agree or take action), you know that you have established a ‘speak-up’ culture.