When we conduct culture assessments for clients, we’re finding one result consistently emerges, even in cultures that have many other healthy traits.
Want to know what it is?
Most cultures don't encourage people to speak up.
Why is this trait so common in corporate cultures?
• Raising difficult issues is a behaviour many people aren't good at, even in the best of times (in relationship with their friends or partner, for example). Establishing this as an expected norm in your organisation requires a lot of effort.
• Fear of job loss. Sadly, most people don't hold a relaxed confidence there'll always be another job out there for them, and so become more cautious in what they do and say.
• If there's mistrust of management, people become less willing to take a risk, or show a pattern of behaviour which is outside the 'comfort zone.'
• Stories become myths and spread fast. Most organisations have a story of someone who spoke up and got fired. The full context gets lost in the telling (even though there were usually valid reasons for exiting this person) and it becomes a warning to others to keep their mouth shut.
What Are the Benefits of Working on This Behaviour?
• You get to hear the bad news. Earlier. A culture of ‘no surprises’ enables corrective action to be taken before a problem grows with more serious performance consequences.
• News from those closest to the customer reaches decision-makers faster. This can have a big impact on customer experience (resourcing, process improvements, product design).
• Engagement improves because employees feel valued and heard.
4 Things Leaders Can Do to Encourage Speaking Up
1. Ask lots of questions which use the word ‘specifically’ – “What specifically can I do to help you do you job?” “What specifically is causing your customers to be unhappy?” ‘Specifically’ questions can really reduce people’s fear of speaking.
2. Recognise the behaviour you want by acknowledging those who do speak up courageously. Try reaching out in the moment they do it, whether it’s face to face, on social media, or email. “I love that fact that you raised this” “It must have taken some courage to raise that, thank you.”
3. Take deep breaths, practice mindfulness, avoid the defensive response. If you can feel a knot in your stomach or throat you are probably experiencing a defensive reaction. The adrenalin is pumping. If you have the option, wait to respond. If you’re in a live situation, ask more questions and frame your answers carefully. Remember: what you’re hearing is this person’s experience of reality and by denying it you will not make it change. Empathy is far more effective.
4. Find out about the myths and stories from specific past incidences. Raise them, and provide a different version of the story – or apologise if the story is true.
What's important to understand is that most people will always feel some degree of fear or anxiety. We all do, it's a part of stretching outside our comfort zone. It's your task as a leader to build a culture where courage is encouraged, and where people will speak up, despite feeling anxious or awkward about it. As Seth Godin says:
"How do I get rid of the fear?... No, the right question is: How do I dance with the fear?"