In the first of three blogs for Hult, Professor Megan Reitz summarizes the findings of her research on “Speaking Truth to Power,” featured by Harvard Business Review and the BBC, and the subject of her new book, Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard, (Financial Times Publishing, July 2019).

 

Do you speak up? Are others telling you the “TRUTH?

 

Recent scandals such as Goldman Sachs 1MDB and the Boeing 737 safety issues show us that silence costs careers, reputations, and, in some cases, lives.

Our research suggests that right now, 8% of employees are staying silent about something they believe could negatively impact their organization’s reputation. It also suggests that, although over three-quarters of us have ideas we believe would benefit our organization, up to 40% of us have not shared those ideas formally at work.

 

Organizations can no longer afford malpractice to go unnoticed and ideas to go unheard.

My research over the last five years, which has just been published in a new book ‘Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard’ (Financial Times Publishing), co-authored with John Higgins, means I frequently get invited by leadership teams to help their teams speak up more effectively.

They just won’t speak up”, these leaders tell me. “They just need to step up! Be brave!”

The problem is, speaking up is not simply a matter of courage. Courage is important, but, as my research shows, it is perhaps listening up that’s crucial. You can train teams to speak up all you like, but if no one is listening, no action ever gets taken, or those that speak are actively punished, ridiculed or simply ignored, then it is a complete waste of time and silence remains king.

Not only do we forget the importance of listening – our research shows that we tend to think we are far better at both speaking and listening up than other people. We therefore don’t try as hard as we need to and impatiently wait for “them” to get better at it so that “the culture around here” finally starts to shift for the better.

To shift this impasse, we must face up to one unavoidable workplace dynamic that drives our habits of conversation.

Power.

We label one another all the time – job title, age, ethnicity, gender, personality, educational background… All these, and many more, convey relative status – or take it away, depending on the context you are in. Here’s an example: in my 20s, working as a management consultant, I was told “my problem” was that when I was presenting at board level I was labeled “young” and “woman” (if I was lucky – sometimes it was “girl”). These labels in the boardroom didn’t – and in many places still don’t – compel others to listen. I had to work hard to be heard.

On the other hand, we worked with a traditional British organization where the labels “male,” “white,” “British,” “50s,” and “Oxbridge” undoubtedly meant you could expect to speak up – and be heard (see our article with Ben Fuchs on “Advantage Blindness” in Harvard Business Review for more on this). This resulted in the most homogenous group I’ve ever worked with grappling, with difficulty, the challenges of diversity and inclusion.

 

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So when we decide whether to speak or listen up we assess, consciously or unconsciously, our relative status and authority.

We ask ourselves “is it ok / expected for me to speak up now?” and “is this a person I’m expected to, or I should be listening to?” Changing habits mean we must bring our assumptions about power out into the open. But we notice that hardly any teams or organizations we work with do this well.

Through our research, we offer the “TRUTH framework.” This helps individuals and teams to consider power and enable them to think more carefully about their habits. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. How much do I TRUST the value of my opinion, in comparison to how much I trust the value of others’ opinions?

  2. What are the RISKS involved when I or others speak up?

  3. Do I UNDERSTAND the politics of who says what to who… and why?

  4. Am I aware of the TITLES and labels others attach to me and I attach to others – and how that shapes what gets said in conversations?

  5. Do I know HOW to choose the right words at the right time in the right place…or how, skillfully, to help others to speak up through what they say and do?

 

Watch out for the next two blogs in this series, where I will be offering more analysis and advice on firstly how to speak up and then how to listen up effectively in the workplace. Part 2 will be published next week.

 

Watch Megan’s TEDx talk on how power silences truth

 

 

 

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