Megan Reitz

5 ways to develop a speak-up company

Megan Reitz

Nurturing a culture that encourages open dialogue can be difficult – particularly where there has been a history of employee silence. There is no silver bullet to fix this – but undoubtedly effective leadership can make a huge difference.

In my latest research on speaking up in the workplace we explain that many organisations are focusing their time and resources on developing employee bravery to speak up.

This is vital work, however employees can still be reluctant to express their opinions or voice concerns when leaders are present.

The way we invite others to speak up and listen up is perhaps, therefore, even more important.

It helps to understand why we sometimes choose to stay silent – and the steps we can take to prevent a fear-culture setting in. Here are some suggestions – not just from me, but from other experts in the field – that can make a big difference:

1 – Encourage psychological safety

Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, has been instrumental in highlighting the crucial role of psychological safety in speaking up. This is the sense that there is sufficient safety in our team for interpersonal risk-taking.

The Journal of Management Studies alludes to this subject reporting on “Speaking Up, Remaining Silent: The Dynamics of Voice and Silence in Organizations”:

“There are many different types of issues that people in organizations are silent about and many reasons why people may elect to be silent,” Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison and Frances J. Milliken of New York University write. “An employee may keep quiet about unethical practices that he or she has observed, for example, out of fear of being punished.

“Members of a group may choose to not express dissenting opinions in the interest of maintaining consensus and cohesiveness in the group. Thus, silence can be caused by fear, by the desire to avoid conveying bad news or unwelcome ideas, and also by normative and social pressures that exist in groups.”

We are social animals and we want to belong rather than be rejected. Psychological safety decreases the risk of rejection thereby encouraging speaking up.

2 – Be accessible

It’s important that leaders don’t just do the bare minimum with formalized 1:1s and scheduled catch-ups. They need to engage in a way that makes people feel they can always connect.

According to James R. Detert and Linda K. Treviño, authors of “Speaking to Higher-Ups: How Supervisors and Skip-Level Leaders Influence Employee Voice”, it’s not enough for leaders to tell employees they have an ‘open-door’ policy. People assume the leader is speaking from a position of authority and that creates an unconscious barrier to open communication.

Being accessible means not only being close but sending out the right signals, as Detert and Trevino continue:

“During such conversations, leaders must listen more than talk and then respond in ways that reduce employees’ concerns about breaching written or unwritten rules. Because of the heightened vigilance of employees in such interactions, consistency of cues will be critical.

3 – Make time for creative, less-formal discussion

In a similar way, it’s crucial that those valuable touch-points allow for collaborative discussion rather than feeling someone has set permission to speak during an allocated time slot.

A 2019 study by Vistage found that “lack of time” was the number-one obstacle to business innovation, but added:

“No one has time or money for innovation. You have to make time for it. You have to choose to invest in it.”

Similarly, some leaders may feel there is no time to reach out to the employees we don’t automatically hear from, let alone make small talk with them. Yet without this time, you may appear to be very, very distant to those who have something that you really need to know about.

4 – Take off the blinkers

My research with John Higgins aligns with many of the points listed above. But perhaps the most significant for me is a point which colleague Ben Fuchs emphasises: that leaders are almost inevitably blind to their own privilege – they are used to being heard, they expect more positive consequences when speaking up and in the same breath forget how tricky it is for others who aren’t lucky enough to own the labels and titles that convey status.

We found that senior managers trust that others, especially junior staff, will voice their opinions. But this isn’t the case: some 34% of junior employees (who may have more visibility into misconduct) believe they would remain silent after discovering malpractice, compared to just 7% of senior managers.

That to me speaks volumes. The disconnect between senior and junior creates such a damaging chasm. When more leaders recognize this, perhaps they will find better ways to connect with their teams. Or their teams will choose to disconnect with them… and their silence will cost careers, reputations and, in the worst cases, lives.

5 – Encourage curiosity

Beyond that, it’s critical business commits to leadership that fosters a culture of learning, that promotes experimentation, feedback and space for reflection”, as a recent Hult study on “Learning to lead in the 21st Century” recommended. Emphasizing the importance of ethical behavior – and modelling such behavior yourself – is vital to learning and innovation.

“The workplace should be a place of endeavor, not of endurance,” Hult’s Fleming and Delves write in their book. “Embracing ethics in the workplace and in wider society also encourages us to celebrate values such as honesty, compassion or loyalty, interpersonal skills such as emotional intelligence, attitudes such as authenticity or mindfulness.”

Speaking Truth To Power

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Dr. Megan Reitz teaches on The Senior Executive Program

Hult International Business School
Hult International Business School 
Ashridge Executive Education