Creating a healthy challenge culture at work isn’t just about encouraging people to speak up – it’s also about creating the right space for people to be heard. By focusing on key areas that support employee voice, leaders can embed a strategy of ‘speak up, listen up, follow up’ that helps both their teams and their organisations.
The business case is strong. At an organisational level, supporting speaking up can bring higher innovation and productivity , a more engaged workforce and lower rates of absenteeism . For employees, there is a positive link with job satisfaction . Given the scandals that have emerged across all industries in recent years, it is clearly vital that workers feel empowered to raise concerns and motivated to do the right thing.
Unfortunately, speaking up – particularly where an issue could bring criticism – isn’t easy. The whistleblowing charity Protect published a report analysing the lived experience of employees in the financial services sector who had contacted them between 2017 and 2019. Employees told them that 33% of concerns raised at work had been ignored and that ‘7 in 10 whistleblowers continued to feel victimised, dismissed or felt resignation was the only option open to them’ .
What are the barriers to speaking up?
Choosing to communicate concerns at work is a complex human behaviour. It is context-specific and influenced by a wide range of variables at individual, team, leadership and organisational levels. Research conducted by Positive indicates that 1 in 3 people find it relatively difficult to speak up. This increases to 1 in 2 among more junior staff. Our data also showed that there is a significant disconnect between how comfortable senior leadership believe staff to be speaking up, and how comfortable staff actually feel.
The fear of consequences – both personal and professional – clearly affects employees’ actions . Employees must feel safe and comfortable in order to speak up about something. When faced with the dilemma of whether to raise an issue at work, an employee will consider the relative risks versus potential benefits, somewhat akin to a rapid cost-benefit analysis.
Past experiences of speaking up also impact how employees feel about doing so in the future. From our research, we found that those who had recently experienced an unsupportive or negative response from senior colleagues, or had been encouraged to remain silent, were the least likely to report speaking up. Those who had received a supportive response, or who felt their concerns were listened to and taken seriously, were more likely to report speaking up.
Fundamental to understanding speaking up as a behaviour is to recognise that it needs to be part of a dialogic process – a conversation – so it requires another entity to ‘listen up’. In other words, having decided to speak up, employees need to feel that what they are saying is being heard.
‘Fundamental to understanding speaking up as a behaviour is to recognise that it needs to be part of a dialogic process… so it requires another entity to “listen up”.’
An employee will also want to know what progress has been made as result of them speaking up, including whether the concern has been investigated or led to any changes. This feedback is essential for the individual to believe their action was worthwhile. This is the ‘follow up’ element of the process.
What can organisations do?
1. Support individual psychological health
Psychological health has a bi-directional relationship with speak up behaviours. Raising concerns at work can put individuals into a ‘threat’ state, generate difficult emotions and leave them feeling vulnerable. If people are already stressed or anxious, they may therefore not feel able to speak up. One study found that employees in high problem-solving jobs who had a negative moodstate and significant levels of rumination were more likely to be silent and avoid speaking up .
Organisations must support individuals to build psychological skills, including self-awareness and emotional regulation. They must also prioritise the factors that support psychological health, such as team psychological safety. This is beneficial not only for speak up behaviours, but also for general wellbeing and performance.
2. Help teams sustain a climate of psychological safety
Psychological safety is the shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking . Earlier this year, among its list of recommendations, the Institute for Public Policy Research stated audit services should ‘signal in their actions to employees and partners that the firm will have their back when they challenge clients,’ regardless of whether problems are uncovered or not .
Building authentic connections and trusting relationships is fundamental to psychological safety, especially in the context of the manager–employee dyad. Reciprocal relationships support people to feel engaged and to voice issues .
By implementing psychoeducational and behavioural strategies, teams can better understand and model curiosity, and develop professional scepticism, ultimately supporting employees to speak truth to power.
3. Have leadership role-model speak up behaviours
Ethical leadership has been shown to encourage employees to be more confident to speak up, and also to do so in a constructive way . Employees we surveyed who considered their senior people as good role models for speaking up and listening well were also the most likely to speak up themselves. What’s more, our analysis found that employees’ perception of culture was highly correlated with leadership openness.
Leadership is a powerful lever for cultivating a healthy challenge culture. Organisations need to provide behavioural-based training with graded exposure exercises. This allows senior leaders and managers to explore and practise strategies for role-modelling speak up behaviours.
4. Measure speak up behaviours across the organisation
Organisations need to listen to their workforce. Research on employee voice has shown that formalising employee involvement and promoting participation also encourages people to provide their opinions, reducing organisational silence . Completing focused assessments of employee opinions and experiences of the speak up process delivers insights into the underlying beliefs and behaviours contributing to a company’s challenge culture. For the employee, when data is anonymously collected, the general findings or outcomes must be reviewed openly. This reassures the individual that they have been heard and their input considered.
5. Nurture active listening skills in leaders and beyond
Organisational communication has been referred to as ‘the social glue that ties organisations together’ . Reitz and Higgins’ extensive work on speaking up has also reflected on the effects of employee hierarchy and concluded: ‘Getting people to speak up is often less about the less powerful having a voice and more about the more powerful really wanting to listen’ . Senior members of staff can be victim to blind spots where they are unaware that they are difficult to approach, or that they hold their own biases as to who they ‘listen up’ to.
‘Getting people to speak up is often less about the less powerful having a voice and more about the more powerful really wanting to listen.’
Training for leaders should highlight the value that lies in having different opinions within teams, and how to manage difficult conversations and embed active listening skills. With the right psychoeducational support, leaders are also in a unique position to role-model and actively disseminate their own learning on how to listen well and respond when colleagues speak up. Taking an early intervention approach that introduces these skills to junior colleagues as well, asserts an organisation’s commitment to make speak up part of good ethical practice.
6. Strengthen the whole process at an organisational level
Organisations need to establish a transparent, structured and timebound process that facilitates, recognises and rewards ‘speak up, listen up, follow up’ behaviours. The process must include directions on providing feedback (the ‘follow up’) and set out a commitment to recognise and reward speak up behaviour, regardless of whether it’s good news or bad news being shared. Similarly, by incorporating case reviews into their speak up process, organisations can adopt a model of more continuous learning and seek to build institutional memory. Feedback from failure can bring about change towards more adaptive practices .
The Financial Conduct Authority’s ‘In confidence, with confidence’ report placed renewed focus on diversity in this context, particularly the importance of creating environments where everyone feels safe to speak up. It is only by incorporating different views and respecting different experiences that an organisation will be able to learn more quickly, identify problems earlier and in turn, improve its appeal as an employer .
Businesses are facing higher levels of scrutiny than ever before. It is therefore essential that organisations support their employees to put forward their ideas and raise concerns at the earliest opportunity. Simply being aware of how fear and emotions can impact speaking up isn’t enough to trigger lasting behavioural and cultural change. Organisations need to equip their people with the right psychological skillset and embed approaches that positively reinforce speak up behaviours. In the wake of someone speaking up, leaders and the wider organisation must also be equipped to listen up and to follow up by feeding back on any subsequent changes or actions.
At Positive, we partner with organisations all over the world to apply psychological science, improve wellbeing and optimise performance. To find out about the solutions we offer for the ‘speak up’ challenge, click here, or book a free consultation with one of our experts.
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