Scandals like Volkswagen or Fells Fargo made it clear again: Before a scandal erupts, many, many people in the company knew about the ongoing ethics problems for quite a long time. According to research about one year! So why did most of them not speak up?
In the first part of this series, Bettina Palazzo explored how leaders discourage that their team members address uncomfortable truths and what they can do about it. Now she will look at how leaders need to conduct speak up conversations that make it safe and worthwhile for employees to speak up.
Coming up in the next parts of this blog series on speaking up:
- Speak-up post no. 3: Why employees do not speak up and who are the courageous people that do dare to speak up.
- Speak-up post no. 4: How employees can prepare an effective speak-up conversation and how they can conduct this difficult talk with courage and confidence.
In part one of this series on speak-up we saw that leaders need to encourage their team members to speak up long before there is a critical thing to say : They need to create a culture of constructive feedback, where saying uncomfortable truths and keeping each other accountable for ethical behavior is normal. Speaking up is most of all a communication and relationship problem. If you have good communications and a good relationship with your coworkers, if they trust you, if you share responsibilities with them, speaking up is much easier.
Sounds easy and logical? Of course, but in practice it is not so easy to do. As with most leadership topics we often observe a knowing-doing gap: In theory we know what would be the right thing to do, but in practice there are many obstacles that keep us from doing them. It is a bit like living a healthy life: We all know what to do (no sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, lots of exercise, enough sleep etc.), but actually doing it in a consistent way can be so hard. It is like Chip and Dan Heath say in their bestselling book « Switch » : Your rational mind is just the tiny rider on the big elephant of our irrational behavior, desires and emotions. Our rational mind might decide that it is the right thing to do to go jogging every morning at 6 a.m., but the irrational elephant of our deepest emotions and desires throws the alarm clock in the corner, when we need to stand up to go running.
To overcome the inertia of our own inner elephant, we need a lot of practice, reflection and feedback. That is why good leaders need to invest in self-development work. If they find ways to effectively deal with their inner irrational elephant, they can also go ahead and create an environment that makes it easier for their followers to become better leaders themselves. Leaders’ influence on their followers’ elephant is always limited, but they can influence the path of their followers’ elephants.
In the case of speak-up, leaders need to work on their own intuitively defensive reaction to unpleasant feedback (elephant) and they need to create structures that make speak-up normal.
In my fist blog post I already spoke about the structures that can turn speak-up into a normal practice (e.g. integration in team meetings).
Now I will explore how leaders need to react to a team member’s voicing of ethical concerns.
Let’s imagine the following scene :
Your coworker Claire, an engineer, comes to see you and tells you that she thinks that the new promising product your team has been working on since one year will need an expensive safety check. She also thinks that without this safety check this product could create a lot of damage and might even endanger lives. You are infuriated: In your opinion, Claire has the tendency to over-engineer and is not enough business oriented. Furthermore, you are under a lot of pressure from your boss to finally push this product to market. It would be very difficult for you to explain another delay because of the – in your opinion – unlikely possibility of safety risks.
How should you react?
You natural tendency could be defensive. You really want to market this product soon and you are uncomfortable to explain this to your boss. After all, no product is without risk…and we need to earn money here. Consequently, chances are that you tell Claire that she should think business and stop over-engineering. This, of course, would discourage and demotivate Claire. She will maybe share her experience with colleagues who will conclude that speaking up about sensitive issues is not worth it and might harm your relationship with you as a boss.
The negative effect of this single incident of unsuccessful speak-up goes far beyond this single event. Responsible leaders have to be aware that their behavior is under constant observation and interpretation by their coworkers. That is why just saying, «My door is always open» or “Please tell me your honest opinion.” without constantly acting accordingly will not create an open speak-up culture.
You really need to be serious about your openness to critical voices from your coworkers. It has to be authentic and credible.
Consequently, when a coworker comes to you with unpleasant or critical feedback and you feel the urge inside of you to defend yourself, always mentally press the pause bottom before saying anything and follow this guideline:
- When a coworker speaks up, always treat them with respect and openness.
- Thank them for speaking up.
- Watch out for your tone of voice and body language: Don’t look at your phone or computer, no aggressive or condescending tone of voice. No grim face. Be open and friendly.
- Get to the heart of the matter, ask questions, be curious. Useful sentences could be:
- “I have the feeling you are not telling me everything…”
- “It is important to me to have your critical uncensored opinion…”
- “Is there anything else I need to know?”
- “What are your thoughts about this…?”
- Do not judge or try to fix it, before you have understood the whole story. Practice active listening techniques: “If I have understood your right, you are thinking…”)
- Do not get defensive. Feedback is always a gift.
- Follow-up: agree on what should happen next.
- Update you coworker in time.
Agreeing on what should happen next and update you coworker in time is key.
If your coworker took the energy and courage to speak up, it is crucial that you keep her updated. Otherwise, you enforce the message that speaking up is not worthwhile. And this is one of the main reasons people do not speak up. Why put yourself on the line, if nothing changes?
The importance of the leader’s role in speak up cannot be over-estimated.
Now we know that managers need to do, in order to encourage speak-up and how they need to react to coworkers who actually do speak up.
It is time to look at the other side: Coming up in the last two parts of my speak-up series:
- Why employees do not speak up
- How to prepare an effective speak-up conversation and how to communicate professionally during a speak conversation with a superior.
Stay tuned and watch for the next episode of the speak-up series!
Author: Dr. Bettina Palazzo
Professor at BSL