The Speak-up Series

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. But, why did they not speak up? Bettina Palazzo will explore in this series:

  1. How leaders discourage that their team members address uncomfortable truths and what they can do about it.
  2. How leaders need to conduct speak conversations that make it safe and worthwhile for employees to speak up.
  3. Why employees do not speak up and who the courageous people are that do dare to speak up.
  4. How employees can prepare am effective speak-up conversation and how they can conduct this difficult talk with courage and confidence.

#1 Speak-up : The Role of Leadership is crucial

Speaking up on topics of ethics and compliance is hard to do. Already speaking up when you disagree or have bad news can be difficult in organizations.

But speaking-up is important because companies need to know about ethical problems early, before they become a major scandal. Research shows that before a corporate scandal is revealed, people in the company knew about the problem for at least a year.

In order to encourage speaking-up, you need a climate of trust, where coworkers can speak up in a safe environment knowing that their opinion counts and that they do not have to fear negative effects for themselves and their careers.

Very often, though, leaders discourage speaking-up without even noticing :

  • Leaders are bad role models and do not speak up to their superiors themselves. Coworkers will always model their behavior to how their superiors behave. An example: Regular hand-washing is very important to prevent infections in hospitals. The most important factor in increasing hand-washing is when senior doctors act as role models and frequently wash their hands.
  • Leaders have an authoritarian leadership style that is based on command and control. Clearly this is unfavorable for the creation of a relationship between managers and coworkers that allows to speak up easily. An authoritarian leader presumes he/she knows best and does not empower coworkers to freely share their own, dissenting opinion. When coworkers disagree, they use the force of their authority to get their will.
  • Leaders do not listen to their coworkers.
  • They do not actively ask for their coworkers’ opinion.
  • They are not open to feedback.
  • They do not give constructive feedback themselves to coworkers.

We can see, if leaders want their team members to speak up, they need to work on a more participatory leadership style and create a climate where giving and receiving constructive feedback is normal. Only if this open and safe culture is well established, employees will speak up.

The importance of the leader’s role in speaking up cannot be over-estimated. This quote from the book « Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement » by Peter T. Coleman and Robert Ferguson sums it up so nicely:

People with low power who are not convinced their honest perspective is really valued instinctively withhold their ideas. A leader has to do much more than say things like «My door is always open» or «I really want to know what you think” to get the goods from subordinates. The leader has to prove again and again through statements and actions that honesty is valued and that constructive disagreement goes unpunished.

So how can leaders create a speaking-up culture?

They have to do seemingly simply things like listening to their team members. Easier said than done. We are often hard-wired to respond instead of taking the ideas of others in. Especially leaders are tempted to jump too quickly to conclusions and offer solutions. Understandably so, after all a manager’s job is to solve problems…sometimes they are so eager to solve the problem, that they do not take the time necessary to really understand what is going on by using tools like active listing and asking the right questions. Leaders should never underestimate the small problems their team members might address. You never know, they might be the beginning of bigger problems or the tip of an iceberg.

Furthermore, leaders need to sharpen their senses and watch out if coworkers fall into silence over a topic. If everybody is chronically of the same opinion in team meetings and nobody ever offers a dissenting opinion, it is time to take a trusted team member a side and ask some open questions.

Finally, leaders need to make speaking up normal:

  • They should explain to all of their team members form their first day of working together, that sharing their open opinion with him or her, is vital and that they will be receptive to constructive feedback and always say “thank you”.
  • Leaders can integrate speaking-up into their team meeting routines. Of course, they will need to role-model this first.
  • Leaders need to prove that their followers can trust them and that speaking-up will be safe and worthwhile.

So we see, speaking up is first and foremost a communication and relationship problem. If you have good communications and a good relationship with your coworkers, if they trust you, if you do share responsibilities with them, speaking up is much easier.

Stay tuned and watch for the next episode of the speak-up series!
Prof.-Bettina-PalazzoAuthor: Dr. Bettina Palazzo
Professor at BSL

Onto higher grounds – Holacracy at BSL after the initial 9 months of birthing

Our all-team meeting carried an entirely different energy than our initial meeting in late August last year. While at the start, everybody in the team was politely and cautiously positive, well, politically correct might be a better term, we now have a team with members that no longer hesitate to express their personal sentiments about their insights and learnings about where we are. That may sound simple but represents a huge shift in how far we have come as a team and what collective and individual work it took to break down the proper facades of polite, superficial engagement with the truth of the deeper struggles, resistances, blind spots and shadows, but also the deep personal learning, the enthusiasm, unlikely transformations and breakthrough. The team has gained in color, flavor, diversity of opinion, in authenticity and in honest relationships.

I am not sure to be able to identify the individual elements that brought us here, but I can try sharing my perspective. To me, Holacracy has been a weekly if not daily reminder of my personal shortcomings and challenges, of where there is room to improve, opportunity to let go, to investigate uninvestigated convictions and beliefs. All of which have triggered a journey of personal development of an intensity that I have been missing in recent years. I had forgotten what it means to work on myself and within myself. The shared journey we have been at together with the BSL team has brought this notion back into the center of my life and I feel much more connected to myself than I have felt in a while.

I had the chance to shed light into my shadows and I have jumped on the opportunity to use a coaching method to work with the most urgent thing I wanted to personally improve: my tendency to express frustration and impatience in an aggressive email. Six weeks later and rich in learning, I have understood that my deeply ingrained values have stood in my way causing this tension in me: one set of my values had to do with wanting to change the world – at all cost, including over-committing myself; another set of values related to me honoring my inner space and seeking deep connections with other. Looking at my shadow I saw how these two sets of values could end up cancelling each other out – creating distance with those I wanted and needed to work with in an attempt of changing the world, destroying exactly what I had wanted most: a deep connection. Sharing such learnings may surprise but by now I am entirely at ease of sharing this with my colleagues and with you. Holacracy opened up that space. This does not mean that everybody does or must share what is going on within themselves. There is full freedom to also share nothing, and some of us are happy with that, too.

9 months into our collective transformative journey, it feels a bit like the initial birthing process is completed. We have had at our last full day work session with Christiane, our Holacracy coach, and five members of our team are currently spending four days in Vienna taking part in a Holacracy practitioner training. We haven’t invested anything like this into our team and our development and I am sure both the coaching and the four team days as well as the training have done much to change our understanding of who we are together as a team.

A few months ago, some members have talked about lost trust and about the team spirit having gone away. We have very much struggled with the separation of work roles and personal soul space. It felt so artificial, so sterile, in the beginning. We didn’t know anymore what to do with our relationships, our culture, our ways of relating. It took months and months for us to slowly experience to what degree we have been mixing work and personal relationships, how we use relationships to get work done and how work issues stand in the way of seeing each other as persons. Some work issues didn’t get addressed because of personal relationships, some personal relationships suffered as a result of tensions related to work issues. I struggled so much with the projections of others, and I still don’t always feel that I am seen as just the person I am when I am having a cup of coffee or lunch with a colleague. Positions and titles and old hierarchy habits do still creep in. What I say still counts as more than it should and sometimes I think I need to go away for this to really dissolve. I had tried to shut up for three months and have since learned to frame what I say as “just an opinion” or “just a pitch” when I am not speaking from any role I am energizing. Yet, it takes more than me to change all of that. We all are required to bring so much courage and openness and vulnerability to work and we are maybe just now ready to start understanding what it takes in terms of safe spaces where we can expose our weaknesses and problems in the spirit of learning and developing forward. One step at a time.

To me, that one step at a time is clearly the best thing Holacracy brought to me. Rather than masterminding re-organization or strategy, or solving any complex issues, my biggest learning right now relates to trusting that one step at a time is all that is needed and the very likely best way to solve any complex issue. Steps in Holacracy are tensions and tensions are positive. That is learned by now and acquired. Yet, there is so much that lies still ahead of us. One of the future challenges is how to bring in our faculty and our students into a more self-organizing, power distributed organizations. Deliberately developmental company (DDC) is what they call places like ours; and we want to share such experiences with our students who come to BSL to learn about how to be responsible leaders in a fast evolving world. Organizing around purpose is one important element of that and it has brought a dynamic of innovation at BSL that was entirely unimaginable just 9 months ago. We have come a long way on our journey from static individual performers to an inter-connected agile organization in just 9 months. I am so grateful to my colleagues for this journey, after many lonely years, I feel that I have partners and peers again I can truly work, share, play and co-create with. And this is just the beginning!

Katrin Muff, PhD

Active in thought leadership, consulting & applied research in sustainability & responsibility, and directing the DAS & DBA programs