Speaking truth to power: Responding creatively to uncertainty, volatility and change

Megan Reitz, Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Hult-Ashridge

For many years now, in Business School classrooms, we have been researching and discussing the leadership capacities required in VUCA - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous - times.

Well, here we are.

Suddenly the ‘VUCA’ circumstances we referred to in the classroom – for example globalization and technological advancement – have taken a dramatic and scary turn. However, the leadership capacity that remains paramount is the ability to develop a culture of transparency and psychological safety that enables particularly those with ideas to be heard. When the times are different you need to pull on more than the usual suspects, you need difference not as a D&I (diversity and inclusion) initiative but as the very heart of the new thinking we all need. What, and who, got you to where you are – won’t get you to where you need to be during this crisis.

When I was approached by leaders about our research at Hult International Business School before this pandemic, the interest was predominantly related to compliance and conduct: ‘How can I make sure that we don’t end up on the front page of the newspaper for all the wrong reasons?’ ‘How can I get employees to speak up about malpractice/problems?’ It was broadly a defensive reaction, something to do with managing the downside.

Whilst these questions remain vital in a crisis, I have noticed that leaders are now perhaps even more interested in two further ‘business cases’ for creating a speak-up culture. Firstly, innovation and the capacity to challenge assumptions about ways of working: ‘How can I harness ideas that will help us transform, rapidly, to our new circumstances?’ My latest research into social activism and the organizational agenda is making me acutely aware of how important it is for people who are part of the mainstream, who’ve got to where they are by playing by the rules, to learn how to hear news of difference – from lives, skills, and experiences previously overlooked.

Crisis situations call for clarity and assuredness from leaders, however, those very same leaders cannot know how things will develop, and so this calmness needs to co-exist with curiosity. They cannot be in possession of all the good ideas about how to respond. Therefore they rely, significantly, on their teams to have the capacity to challenge, innovate and speak up with those ideas – and to hear from people and perspectives from the edge of the organizational web.

The second area we have noticed leaders are now interested in is protecting the mental health of employees: ‘How can I help develop a culture of care, compassion, and connectedness, in the midst of such worrying times?’ We know that innovation doesn’t happen when anxiety spikes and people are feeling socially isolated.

Levels of anxiety can and are exploding with the worry associated with the virus itself, with the ‘social distancing’ that is being enforced and with the risk to job security that faces millions. Anxiety in the workplace reduces productivity and creativity at just the time when it is needed most. Right now, leaders need to enable social connectedness and support despite the measures in place that make that challenging. Fortunately, the trend in the last few years has been to speak up more about mental health issues at work – this is perhaps even more important than ever right now. Leaders must enable an environment where their teams can speak up with how they are feeling and what they need. These conversations will be charged and emotional – and for leaders who value their analytical nature, they can feel deeply disturbing. Getting through the current situation needs us to let go of a belief in easy to swallow experiences and insights. Becoming comfortable with a rawer, less polished world is at the heart of hearing stress – and then containing it so learning and innovation can happen.

What can leaders do?

Our research emphasizes one key and limiting assumption we have as leaders. If we think others are not speaking up enough (or in a skillful way), we tend to blame them and try to fix them. Instead, we need to think about how our behavior perpetuates silence. We spend too much time asking people to change the way they speak up and not enough time inquiring and challenging ourselves to listen up better and create an environment where our colleagues (and our friends and family) feel able to speak.

Specifically, we advise that leaders think carefully about these ‘5 Ws’:

1-Whose voices do you need to hear more of?

Just do a quick catalog of whose opinions you seek most frequently and check – is this appropriate given the sudden change of events? Who might you need to hear that you’re not hearing right now?

2-Why it is important to hear these voices well?

For example, right now your junior employees (who are ‘close to the coal face ie close to the product/customer) may have ideas about how to meet what could be suddenly very different needs. Unfortunately, the junior employees are often the ‘secret keepers’ – they have ideas but are least likely to speak up mainly because they anticipate the most negative consequences.

3-What do you need to do/say / what behaviors do you need to exhibit to encourage those people to speak up?

You send signals all the time to those around you. Do you think they encourage people to speak up or not? What is your response when you get challenged? Are you known for responding well and being open to having your opinion changed?

4-Where is the best place for people to speak freely?

Have you recently said ‘my door is always open’? Do you hope and expect that you will hear opinions in your office or in the formal meetings you attend? Well at the moment, the ‘where’ is likely to be virtual. Our research shows that people are at their most guarded in meetings. We tend to be even more guarded virtually. Be aware that the more senior you are the more likely you are to think others are speaking up to you – when they aren’t.

5-When is the best time?

As in the point above, do people need to speak up at a time that suits you? How might you open up more possibilities for others to speak with you?

When a business as usual hits the buffers the temptation is to double down, stick with what you know, hire in the same consultants as last time. We have really hit the buffers this time and need to step back and find what it takes to hear news of difference, to invite in heterogeneity, break up all the processes and systems which ensure that we only hear from the usual suspects or people a lot like them. Simply inviting people to speak up will achieve little to nothing, you’re scarier than you think – especially at a time when people are really fearing for their jobs.

There is no single model for how to do this, but every organization will have its pockets of excellence, secret enclaves where people have found ways to break out of the corporate straitjacket. You need to find them and bring them into the daylight.

Learn more about Speaking truth to power in our recorded webinar with Professor Megan Reitz. Watch the recording.

Hult International Business School
Hult International Business School
Ashridge Executive Education