#Speak-up series 4: How to prepare and conduct a speak-up conversation

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:

 Books

  • 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

Articles

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

#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