Five ways to ensure people in your organisation speak up

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Recently the world watched with shock and fascination as a global superpower fell to its knees. We would like to ask 'Could the same happen to you? Who knows something in your organisation that could bring it (and you) down?'

The superpower was Volkswagen. In the space of just a few days a company, seen as one of the standard bearers of German economic excellence and power, saw its share price ripped to pieces. The soon to depart chief executive expressed his shock at what had been going on in the testing department – and probably felt bemused at how powerless he was to influence the meltdown.

From our research, we are aware that those at the top of organisations rarely know what is going on down below and surmise that Volkswagen will not be alone.  Indeed, Jeff Bezos of Amazon has also had reason to lament, upon reading the damning New York Times article exposing Amazon’s ‘bruising’ culture: ‘This is not the Amazon I know’. Well, it wouldn’t be.

Our research, conducted intensively over five months, reveals just how complex ‘speaking truth to power’ (or in other words how people challenge and offer ideas to those more powerful than themselves) really is in organisations, particularly when it involves those who sit in high ranking positions.

It certainly goes well beyond having a whistleblowing policy or a mandated duty of candour. As soon as we apply labels such as ‘CEO’, ‘Senior Executive’ or ‘Boss’, we automatically and often unconsciously layer on the assumptions. We assume that those holding such titles hold power and that there is risk involved in speaking up.  It’s almost as if we are back at school and fear ‘getting into trouble’, ‘teacher not liking us’, ‘others ostracizing us’, ‘getting it wrong’. We restrict what we say in the service of our own survival. If we see something happening that we disagree with, or if we have an idea that goes against the mould, we hesitate before speaking up.

In the best case scenario this results in our organisation limiting its potential for growth. In the worst case scenario you experience what Volkswagen has. So what does it take to get people to speak ‘truth’ to those in power in organisations? How do we guard against silencing ourselves and silencing others? Our research has found the following five themes which influence, in the moment, whether we choose to speak, or choose to stay silent.

Firstly, speaking up takes ‘nouse’ or savviness. You need to know when and where to say something, how to say it and who to say it to. As a leader, you need to know how, in this moment, you might conduct yourself to make it more likely that your staff will speak up. For example, you need to know how to ‘level’ the field as much as possible, minimise the power or status distance as the jargon has it. One of our interviewees spoke about how they choose what they wear depending on who in their organisation they are meeting – they know when to ‘power dress’ and when that is the last thing that they should do.

Secondly, the level of jeopardy faced when choosing whether to speak should not be underestimated. You need the ability to realistically assess the risk you face. If you judge it to be too risky you close down. We need the capacity to keep in check the ‘catastrophe’ story that persuades us that if we challenge we might not be liked, we might lose our job, we might not get another one, we will default on our mortgage, and our family will be destitute. However, as a leader we need to not underestimate and then genuinely reduce the jeopardy experienced by others. As one CEO explained to us, he must be aware that even a raised eyebrow can send his organisation into panic, so his reaction to challenge or ‘crazy ideas’ is phenomenally important; it sends a message to others about how risky it is to speak.

Thirdly, we need to know the games that people are playing in our organisations. We need to know which games to play and which to disrupt – and not to hide behind a fantasy that people aren’t playing games! This links to jeopardy, if I do not understand the political agendas at play I may hesitate to speak or speak out clumsily. One of our interviewees, previously a Board member at a global bank caught up in the Libor scandal, claimed that there is no bigger game played in organisations than the budgeting game. He called it ‘the organisation’s biggest lie’; budgets are set according to what is expected, not what is realistic and so begins a cascade of gaming, as figures are massaged and decisions are made in order to ensure the game continues to play. We learn that it is unwise to break the rules of this game; we continue to pretend and to cover-up.

Which brings us onto the fourth theme; the rules. As an employee faces a senior executive there are unwritten rules; an unwritten contract, that spells out what is expected and what is possible. These rules, or cultural norms, are rarely spoken about. They include guidance on whether one is allowed to challenge. If you wear the label of ‘consultant’ or ‘market researcher’ perhaps (although not necessarily) the rules allow you to challenge the accepted perspective. But maybe the rules are different if you have the label of ‘salesman’ or ‘shelf stacker’. If you are meeting the CEO for the first (and possibly only) time in your career, it may well be the case that the rules state you should be polite and generally subservient. Perhaps if you are a woman sitting on a leadership team the rules state you should be the empathetic one.

Finally there is attitude. In that moment of choice, do you feel passionate enough about an issue to overcome the jeopardy you experience and to go against the rules? What do your values drive you to do? If you are in the leadership role, do you believe that there is something important to learn from the employee standing in front of you or do you essentially think you know best and know the answer? Are you curious and interested or are you proud and impatient? That person standing opposite you has a good sense of smell; they know your attitude and if it feels unwise to speak they will stay silent.

The issue of speaking truth to power in organisations has become pressing. No one is immune. The litany of public disasters over the last few years from the NHS, to Tesco, to Amazon and now to Volkswagen, illustrate how an organisation’s survival is often so fragile. Facilitating good conversations and inquiry has shot up the agenda as a result. 

kim hollamby