#Speak-up series 2 – How can leaders conduct effective speak-up conversations?

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!
Prof.-Bettina-PalazzoAuthor: Dr. Bettina Palazzo
Professor at BSL

The Myth of Organizational Culture

Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability. Read  more posts from The Transatlantic Debate Blog here

There is no such thing as organizational culture, there is only people culture. 

I am curious to explore the difference between a role and a person, an organization and its people. This difference can be illustrated by considering a familiar scenario: What is the culture of the White House? I am suggesting here that it is not the White House that has a culture – the White House is an institution that has a purpose. Those who live and work at the White House represent the people of the White House and these people, how they work together and how they are together define the culture of the White House as an institution. A different set of people will result in a different culture, even if the institution remains the same in its purpose. Individuals may have an influence on the appearance of an institution or organization and depending on the governance structure, also have an influence on the purpose. And yet, the culture is an attribute defined by a group of people, not an institution or an organization. This insight may influence our understanding of how a culture may be changed. Could it be that cultural change is much more about changes that take place at the individual level, rather than those that can be master-minded at the organizational level? Let me attempt to reflect this by considering our lessons learned through the cultural change at Business School Lausanne.

There is a seemingly small but possibly substantial difference between what Organizational Development experts call an “Organizational Culture” and what is really going on. I have become aware of this difference in a reflective talk with BSL’s Holacracy implementation coach Christiane Seuhs-Schoeller of evolutionatwork. We reflected on Business School Lausanne’s (BSL) biggest difficulty and darkest hour in the transformation from a hierarchical to a self-organizing organization that somehow relates to the people space.

As you may recall, Holacracy is a highly sophisticated operating system for self-organization that explicitly takes care of organizing decisions around the “work” that relates to the purpose of the organization and how it very clearly does not organize how people work with each other. Despite hearing and reading everything we could about this, we entered into this transformation and felt entirely unprepared for what was waiting for us.

As we focused on organizing work-related decisions in a power-distributed, non-hierarchical way, learning the complex and sophisticated Holacracy rules that provoked and forced a behavioral change in every single person taking part, we did not pay attention to something crucial: what do we do with our personal relationships above and beyond strictly work-related discussions. In our darkest months, busy negotiating the shadows cast by difficult change, we entirely neglected these personal relationships, trusting that all we needed was work-talk.

In hindsight, we now know that there is a huge need to deal with and find solutions for personal relationships. This is not something a “tribe meeting” can fix as Holacracy may suggest. It is one-on-one work, not something that can be masterminded and implemented across the board. Personal relationships are apparent in every single moment that people work together – in the same space or around a common purpose; rather than being an occasional moment around the coffee machine, they dominate all interactions. Purely work-related decisions form the exception in such exchanges, something we have become able to distinguish thanks to Holacracy, which forces a particular and awkward talk-protocol when work is concerned. As such we would start work-talk with a sentence that sounds like, “In my role of ….., I would like to talk to you in your role of … about …”. And this is where the conversation shifts from a personal talk to a work-talk where the two people share specific accountabilities they can expect within their cooperation.

Such a situation is in stark contrast with the more typical situation where a person with a superior position casually strolls into an office of one of her or his subordinates, leans against the doorpost and in a collegial tone starts a friendly conversation that, depending on personal affinity, is either relaxed, hearty or a bit tense. Typically, somewhere towards the end of that nice chat, the boss comes up with some new expectation, deadline reminder, urgent action to be embraced or a long-term project to ponder. Depending on the managerial style of the supervisor, she or he either checks back about the feasibility of this requests or just strolls out of the office, fully expecting the subordinate to take her/his request as an order. This is a normal mix of personal and work relationship that all of us who work in a normal hierarchy are used to and know by experience in all of its wonderful – and less wonderful – shades of conscious or unconscious manipulation.

Self-organization crushes such situations by rendering them inacceptable in one way or another. It is impossible for any individual to walk into the office of anybody else and expect them to do something just because his/her seniority dictates that their “great idea” becomes an action on someone else’s to-do list. Anybody who has not lived self-organization has no means of truly understanding the implication of this. It makes no sense and any straight-thinking person wonders how anything that needs to get done, does get done. This is where Holacracy and other self-organizing operating systems tend to fail. A leader cannot fathom giving up her or his power and truly trusting that other individuals will not only step up into the space created by defining clear accountabilities in roles, but will have so many more ideas in these roles than could ever have been imagined by one supervisor alone. This trust is a leap of faith that seems to be a big ask for leaders.

At BSL, we were lucky that this was not a problem. As a leader, I was very keen to let go of the implicit power my position held and to focus on activities I could not spend enough time on but where I felt I could add true value to the organization. Given that letting-go was not our main issue (although, despite my wish to let go, I had to check my instincts for a good year!), a deeper issue emerged as a potential deal-breaker in transforming organizations. This is what I am fascinated by: the distinction between what an organization is and what a group of people is.

An organization is indeed NOT a group of people that work together. An organization, and this distinction is crucial, is a “thing”, a legal entity with a very specific purpose that subsequently serves as a vehicle to employ people and resources to realize that purpose. A group of people consists of individuals who, together, form the group. An organization possesses a “culture”, no more than my teacup can possess a culture. My teacup may look a certain way by having a certain shape and color and material, but it has no culture. In the same way, an organization may house its employees in a certain type of building, paint its walls a certain color or serve food of a given quality in its canteen; however, these attributes do not constitute culture. The only aspect of an organization that can have a culture is the people. There is people culture, not organizational culture. If you want to look at what it takes to change culture, you need to look at what it takes to change the individuals who, together, are the people. This is an insight that is not fully embraced in organizational change theory or organizational development. Organizational change in this sense would imply a change of the organization’s purpose or structure, activities or locations, but not of its people. Organizational development cannot mean that its people develop but that the organization grows through new products and services, locations, contracts, partnerships etc.

The reason I feel this distinction is important is that I have a hunch that, by peeling back this layer called “organization” when we talk about changing the culture, we may discover true levers of change to enable cultural shifts in organizations. I am fascinated by this as I still don’t know how our own cultural change came about at BSL. And I was there closely observing it! What happened in these dark months and what came out and into the light after it? When trying to answer this question, examples of individual human actions come to mind. Acts of courage, love and care. All of which are entirely unrelated to any role or accountability. These acts of humanity are what have touched me and possibly others – as individuals, not in a role or a responsibility. Alex sharing his new Chinese tea leaves and showing me how to pour a cup of tea as I walk in tired from a long outside meeting. Denitsa standing up and giving me a big hug as I walk in to say hi. Yasmina cracking a joke as I walk by that makes me stop and see how she is doing, as a person not as a colleague delivering her to-do list. It is Aurea that closes her work notebook and shares how her friend is doing.

These moments which are entirely and totally disconnected from any follow-on comment that says, “and hey, would you mind printing me x and quickly running me this or that report?” or, “hey, since we are chatting, have you heard back from x on y?”. We don’t do that anymore. We were forced to separate these kinds of conversations by learning how to have power-free conversations among roles in a journey to replace our hierarchy. Awkward, coded language that has nothing human or fun in it. But it does its job, it provides a safe space for anybody with a certain responsibility to do the very best she can to embrace this responsibility with all the passion and knowledge and freedom to innovate that she can put into it, given other priorities of other responsibilities she may also have. What happened in these dark hours is that we reduced all of our conversations to such coded, awkward language, and next to that each of us dealt with the pain and the frustration that such cold exchanges created in our own ways. To all the varying degrees of incapacity that humans possess. Some started gossiping, others started to moan and complain, some formed small groups that tried to super-analyze it all and solve it for the team, some retreated in their caves, feeling alone and rejected by a system that was inhuman. All of us, in one way or another, felt alone, helpless and overwhelmed, and all of us reacted to it through the large variety of dark shadows that are a part of our human characters.

Until the human light started to shine through and some started to reach out in caring conversations, daring to question endless complaints by asking, “do you want help or do you just want to complain?”; some started to share their pains and how they went about dealing with them with their coach or in therapy. Somebody organized tea for everybody. Somebody else brought in a homemade cake. Some people started to have really honest and painful conversations with each other. In these early days, everything felt raw and we were all exhausted. Emotionally affected. Small groups of individuals formed who felt more affinity for each other and much energy was spent discussing a problem that nobody could name. Pockets of resistance against the transformation became loud and forceful and the pain was in front of all of us, all the time. The atmosphere was dim, and some people fell ill. They could not understand the coldness of Holacracy and the inhumanity it seemed to require. People who didn’t perform were suddenly very exposed and position power didn’t protect anymore. Difficult talks requiring courage were needed to end long working relationships that probably could have been addressed long before but were hidden due to an overlap with personal relationships. More and more we learned to separate these relationships and slowly, very slowly, too slowly, the benefits started to emerge.

We had focused on identifying work benefits – and we reported many of these, experiencing them with increasing rapidity. The degree and extent of self-initiative is simply mind-blowing. We have moved from a group of people who each felt overwhelmed with the amount of work we needed to do to a group of people open to listen to new ideas, suggestions and opportunities, and ourselves coming up with innovative new, additional things we can do. Where did this space suddenly come from? Our plates were full before – I had long stopped daring to bring in new projects as I feared the reaction of a team that was clearly already overstretched. How come these same people now had ideas far beyond what I had ever dreamt of bringing in? How come, solutions for problems nobody even acknowledged before suddenly were implemented without anybody even knowing? How come costs were reduced where before there was no alternative? How come a suggestion for improvement was suddenly met with “tell me more” rather than “I have no time”? These are all “just” work-related benefits that brought tremendous benefit to the organization and these deserve being studied to be better understood.

What we didn’t focus on was what would happen to our relationships. And this is where more miracles happened. Our human relations have deepened; we know today more about each other than we ever did before and we are forming more of a family in a true sense than ever before. It is wrong to use “we” and “us” as a term. This phenomenon is an individual one and builds on the individual care for somebody else. Massimo and I are sharing the difficult moments we both experience right now seeing our parents with health issues. Carlo and Branko share their worries about their kids during our upcoming company ski-weekend. Denitsa inspired us with daily emails in the holiday months sharing insights about positive psychology from her current Master’s studies. As I present a key note at a big business event, I see the faces of my colleagues in the audience whose smiles encourage me to say what I want to say in clear language. We are all signed up for a course in non-violent communication. Our stakeholders (students and faculty) tell us that it is easier to engage with us, that we listen better and have more time and space for them as human beings, not just as transactional problems. I notice myself that I am careful in responding with a personal comment to emails that I receive. I am friendlier, warmer and more open, and I like that very much.

In our team, a feeling has spread that says “we are cool” and we are proud to belong together. Strength-spotting has become a past-time. Laughter is easier, humor more present and even after a long, tough day at work, I walk out feeling much better in my body and certainly in my heart and soul. Denitsa had asked me midday, “how is your day going” and I was profoundly touched. What a nice question and rather than complaining about all the things that I had going on, I took a quiet breath and I realized, I was having a really good day!

There is a miracle that has happened in front of my eyes and I don’t understand it quite yet. I remain curious and do want to understand it better. For if I can describe it better, others can benefit from such “organizational change” that really is “people change”, and that would be just great! My hunch is that the differentiation between the organization and the group of individuals that make up the people is key. When I worked for Alcoa, it was not the organization I admired and adored as much as its people. It was not “being the best aluminum company in the world” that made my soul sing, it was the positive opportunities I was given, and the leader’s interest in hearing a twenty-four-year old’s opinion on strategy.

Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

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

We’re hiring for DNA!

Today started with a strange email in my inbox. One of the three final candidates in a current open position for which we are hiring wrote that he is retrieving his application. He explained that after having completed the two assignments we ask all advanced candidates in any position at BSL to complete, he understood after intense reflection that given the internal structure of BSL with our strong focus on business cases in sustainability, he would not be able to contribute to the overall goal of the circle for which he was under consideration to the degree he would wish. Interesting, I thought. The two assignments were the completion of a strength-finder self-assessment and an essay about Holacracy at BSL, and more precisely about how a candidate thinks of and places himself in the organizational context of Holacracy. This is the first sign that our recruitment process is truly working both ways. Thanks to a very transparent sharing of who we are and how we work with each other, a potential candidate has decided that this was not an environment for him. Brilliant! I feel that we have just made a big leap forward. A year ago, it would have been very possible for us to end up hiring such a person who would subsequently end up being a misfit with our organization, without having had the tools, wisdom and processes to screen for this hugely important cultural aspect.

This is a week full of people changes. A long-term collaborator will end his contract with us on Friday with his new energetic replacement having started just a few days ago. And another member of our team has gracefully announced that she will be leaving us to pursue other opportunities related to her dream. We are a small team and this is a lot of change for us. A colleague mentioned to me that somehow her circle felt as if the blood was changed in a person and that she needed yet to get used to how the new person would feel that her circle was transitioning into. When I shared with her the story of the email I had received, she smiled and said: “well, now, we are hiring for DNA”. She referred to a most recent hiring decision where we opted for the candidate who brought the most desirable attitude to us, at the expense of the perfect expertise his counterpart had offered. And indeed, I realize that what has happened over the past six months is that somehow, we have found our own DNA as an organization and that in our continuous adaptation of our recruitment and onboarding process, we have learned to create processes, questions and assessments that allow us to filter for this DNA when recruiting new members of the team.

This is something that has occupied many of us deeply over the past year as we have learned to find words and spaces to express how we sense that the organization needs to evolve. This is something that the tension-based process of Holacracy has invited, and maybe even forced, us to do. We have gone through a period where we found increasing courage to attempt to bring words to misalignments in this domain and in entering in daring, personal conversation about how to develop further and how to overcome our shadows and shed light on blind spots. We are in the middle of a newly developed self and peer assessment that those with an interest in designing such things have co-created. I am curious to see how honest and caring conversations we are able to have, with ourselves and with each other. I have opted to select those partners in the organizations who I suspect are the least happy or the most critical of my performance and I am hoping for real insights into how I can improve and develop. In my self-assessment, I have completed a view on myself that should shed light on my dilemmas, regrets, poor choices and areas where I judge lacking performance and I hope that this courage will be contagious so that my partners will be similarly critical in their care to help me advance. I so look forward to their point of view.

My heart was singing of joy as I walked out of a BSL company governance meeting (the super circle of most other circles) where a BSL partner joined us to express serious concern about a policy that had been introduced 5 months ago. We had adopted a “partner retention policy” from Holacracy One after a Holacracy Coaching training course a few of us had attended and which contained also steps of how to let go  (fire) an employee in case a committee would not vote to retain a partner. A policy that was entirely foreign to our HR practices but that seemed the way to advance with Holacracy. I doubt that many people were comfortable with the policy and yet nobody had expressed a tension about it, which itself was source of a tension for at least a couple of people. So finally, today, a partner addressed her concerns and in a most direct, open, daring and courageous sharing, deep fears, concerns and worries were voiced in such a way that the policy was suggested to be deleted. Except for a valid objection of another partner which meant that a solution had to be found to integrate the objection resulting in an amended retention policy that everybody present in the room was very happy with. It took us 60 minutes to undo a malaise that had blocked the organization for a few months. Having removed inappropriate elements that presumed that a person who would not be voted to be retained would be laid off, we agreed that if a person does not get support to be retained that what would need to happen is for the right group of people sit with that person and figure out what the next developmental steps for that person would be. In the check-out round, one of the participating members said that his legs were shaking when he had first read this new policy five months ago, right upon return from his vacation. He was sure the policy was aimed at him and that he would be laid off. Five months of worry without having found a way to express this – wow. We were all stunned and realized the long journey still ahead of all of us to verify assumptions before jumping to conclusions and to dare to bring up such worrying concerns right away. The experience of having seen a colleague finding words to address such a delicate issue has given me and I am sure everybody present in the meeting today the hope that we are today an organization that is on its way to welcome warmly and caringly whatever delicate concern anybody may have. And that makes my heart sing.

This new transparency and appetite for courageous conversations has been most visibly a turning point in a five hour long negotiation with a strategic partner this afternoon and has finally brought out the real hidden issue that has held us all back from finding the shared common solution we had all been hoping for. Finally, a member of the other team, slammed his hand on the table and said: “So, ok, if you want it really straight as you guys seem to be doing it with this Holacracy thing, here is what is really bugging me!” And this was the opening to being able to find a joint solution that allowed us to pop a bottle of champagne. So, this courage is spreading also outside of our little team, and is starting to be contagious to our partners we are engaged with. Wow – who would have thought that culture can be that contagious!

It was a long day and I while I am exhausted, I feel very very happy inside. I feel I am part of an organization that is not only finding its soul but is also finding ways to let it vibrate and sing. And I love the very very quiet first new sounds of music that these vibrations are making. Today was a day where I heard and felt that music. Thank you, fellow partners of BSL!

Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

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

 

The language of leadership

BSL’s Professor Tim Connerton gave a talk on the language of leadership at the 2015 edition of TEDx Geneva.

Tim shares his experience in using key words for communicating to inspire and empower others for cooperation in daily life. He shows that leadership language can create, demonstrate and motivate organizational cultures for positive attitudes, trust, respect and accountability.

Watch the video here:

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A Woman of Substance – Eleanor Tabi Haller-Jorden

Eleanor Tabi Haller-Jorden paid a visit to Business School Lausanne recently and what a treat that was! Ms Jorden addressed a group of students, alumni, staff and faculty and gave her version of what business should think about and look like.

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