Ethical problems can be complex and difficult to resolve. If we want to address an ethical issue with another person, we can easily give that person the feeling that we question their moral identity (“You are a bad person!”). Therefore, we have a tendency to avoid the topic, if we have not practiced facing them effectively before. That is why preparing, practicing and rehearing a speak-up conversation is so important. Yes, I do recommend that you rehearse your critical ethics conversation with a trusted person.
Here is a guideline on how to prepare well:
- Research the facts:
It is crucial to not prepare a meeting on a sensitive issue, if you are already convinced that the other side has bad motives. The other person will sense this and automatically get defensive. Thus, effective solution finding is blocked. So do look at the facts like in a documentary film and try to understand the other side without judging. No interpretations, no judgement! Imagine you are a doctor and need to come up with a diagnose. For example: Somebody cuts you off your parking spot. You assume that the person is a selfish jerk. Then this person comes up to you and apologizes: His wife is in the shopping center and needs to go to the hospital. (This process of automatic judgment of others’ behavior is called the «Ladder of Inference». You can watch this TED video clip that explains it beautifully)
- Improve your power:
Show your boss that you are a valuable and loyal employee not a trouble-maker and that you have a legitimate concern. We all can improve our power even in the most powerless of situations.
This anecdote about Nelson Mandela perfectly illustrates this idea: When Nelson Mandela was in prison on Robben Island he got up every morning at 4 a.m. to do his boxing exercise. He was a trained boxer and staying fit gave him a source of strength and dignity in his unfree and humiliating prison situation. He also had studied all the rules and policies of the prison organization. He knew all his rights and privileges but also the limitations of what his guards were allowed to do. This enabled him to cite the exact numbers and wordings of these rules in situations of conflict.
- Proper timing and place:
We all know that there are times where we are just not receptive for critical comments. Think about the time when you wanted to talk to your patents about a bad grade…You did not do that when they were tired, in a bad mood or watching the news. Chose the right moment. Furthermore, private meetings are better than team sessions. If possible, meeting at a neutral place can help, too.
- Problem and solution always go together:
Try to already have ideas on potential solutions for the problem when you address an ethics and compliance issue. For this, you need to have thought through possible options, consequences and their pros and cons.
If you do this well, addressing your boss can actually be an opportunity: You show that you care about the success and well-being of the company and want to avoid unethical decisions and prevent harm.
If you prepare your speak-up talk like this, you will already feel much more confident and professional, than if you just stumble into your boss’s office and denounce an ethical problem.
Let’s now see what is important during the speak-up situation:
- Show up with confidence:
Sure, voicing an ethics and compliance topic with a colleague or even your boss can be scary and challenging. That is exactly why you need to show up with confidence, because otherwise it will be much more difficult to be taken seriously and convince others of your arguments. Here are some techniques that are helpful: Speak slowly, avoid qualifiers (like actually, only, I just thought…), take breaks to think, don’t be afraid of silence, silence is your friend.
- Understand the other side first… If you start such a sensitive conversation with an accusation, the other person will quite naturally shut down and become defensive. This is completely normal. Anybody would do that. Therefore, it is much more effective to start by asking questions like:
- «Have you thought about…?»
- “Can you help me understand…”
- “Why have you decided…?”
Trying to fully understand the other side first and concentrating on a common interest is crucial, because it is possible that the other side just did not think about the ethical dimension of a situation (e.g. due to time and performance pressure). If they just overlooked the problem and you already accuse them of being an unethical person, unnecessary damage is done and the conversation is over.
- Explain your perspective:
Only if you have completely understood the other side and you still think that there is an ethics and compliance problem, share your opinion in a non-accusative way. You could e.g. say:
- “I want to share my perspective.
- I’m worried /uncomfortable/feel uneasy about….”
Ideally, the other person will see your point and be open to finding a better solution and/or change her behavior.
- Agree on next steps:
In order to make sure that your brave act of speaking- up will have the wanted consequences it is a good idea to agree on the next steps necessary.
- Have a withdrawal strategy ready :
If the other person is not responsive, you can say things like:
- “I just asked because I’m concerned about you and I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble” or
- “I wanted to be sure we protect the organization’s reputation.” (see Amy Gall in the resources below)
This way you can withdraw gracefully from the conversation and decide if you need to escalate the issue to your boss, your boss’s boss, HR or Compliance.
In summary, we see that speak-up is not easy to do, but good preparation and a confident and respectful delivery help. It is crucial that the person who dears to speak up concentrates on a critical but respectful mind-set that focuses on common goals.
At the same time it is clear that the most skillful speak up communicator will fail if the leadership and the culture of an organization does not encourage a climate of open feedback. As we have seen in recent corporate scandals like Volkswagen or Wells Fargo, an organizational climate characterized by fear, high performance pressure, and an authoritarian leadership style is poisonous for speaking-up.
Therefore, the creation of a true speak-up culture always has to start at the leadership and corporate culture level.
Resources on Speak-up:
- Peter T. Coleman and Robert Ferguson Simmons: Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement, 2015
- Shari Harley: How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide to Building Business Relationships That Really Work, 2013
- Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny : Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, 2011
- Deb Calvert: 3 Reasons People Don’t Speak Up, August 3, 2015
- Amy Gallo: How to Speak Up About Ethical Issues at Work, Harvard Business Review June 04, 2015
- Joseph Grenny: Research: We Should Speak Up About Ethical Violations More Often, Harvard Business Review January 08, 2014
Author: Dr. Bettina Palazzo
Professor at BSL