To create a true ‘speak up’ culture, organisations need to stop trying to fix individuals’ behaviours and focus on how leaders listen to employees, according to a leadership and organisational dialogue expert.
Speaking on the second day of the CIPD’s Annual Conference & Exhibition, Megan Reitz, professor of leadership and dialogue at Hult Ashridge Executive Education business school, said there needed to be a fundamental change in the way that organisations and leaders treated those who spoke up about issues, rather than simply encouraging them to “be brave”.
Speaking up and activism
“The courage to speak up is of course important and, yes, we need to train people and help them have the courage and skills [to do so]. But frankly, it’s a complete waste of time and resources unless you are also focusing on the skill of listening and the skill of inviting people to speak up,” she said.
“We need to stop trying to fix the individual and focus more on [fixing] the system.”
The top two reasons why people chose to stay silent were the fear of being perceived negatively by others and the fear of upsetting other people.
“If we think it’s going to challenge our relationship, we might stay silent,” she said. “Trust is the ignition key.”
Secondly, organisations needed to ensure no conversation topic was off the table. Reitz suggested employees wanted to talk about issues such as sexual harassment, climate change, Black Lives Matter and executive pay, but organisations only invited staff to “speak up about compliance [issues] and good ideas”.
“Inviting a speak up culture and then trying to pick and choose what you want people to feel they can speak up about is not very effective or productive,” said Reitz.
Reitz acknowledged the rise in employee activism – staff standing up for their beliefs and challenging the status quo within organisations and wider society.
Many organisations responded defensively, tried to suppress activism, or announced they would take action and then did not, she said. Organisations needed to move the dial towards creating a dialogue with activist employees.
“To do this, we need to change our relationship with power. We have to be aware of how we relate to power and, as we know, power remains undiscussable in organisations,” she said.
She advised leaders to learn to “be willing to have our minds changed” and to go into conversations with a willingness to share decision-making processes.
She said there were three areas that leaders needed to address if they wanted to encourage an open dialogue in organisations.
“The first trap is that we forget how scary we are [as leaders] … We think we’re approachable and lovely, and we probably are, but other people don’t see us that way. We need to see ourselves as other people do and then we need to invite people [to speak to us] in a way that they want to be invited,” said Reitz.
Next, leaders needed to acknowledge their own personal prejudices. She said many have their own private “list” of people they listened to the most, and often the people on this list were of the same gender and ethnicity as them.
“How do we approach this openly and how do we connect with people that are different to us so we have more diverse voices on that list?” she asked.
Finally, leaders should to pay attention to the way they respond when an individual raises a concern or makes a suggestion.
“They [need to] take care with ‘shut up signals’… a classic example is the leader who has a thinking face on Zoom, which means they happen to look terrifying to everybody else.
“Be aware of how you respond when people speak up. They might’ve been worried to speak up, or preparing for that moment for the past two weeks,” said Reitz.