Encouraging people to speak up in organisations is a complex balancing act. Leaders need a sophisticated understanding of the impact power differences have on what can be spoken and what is heard. They need to know what will encourage people to put their heads above the parapet – and what will make them feel it is too risky to voice their views.
A recent Ashridge research report, ‘Being Silenced and Silencing Others: Developing the capacity to speak truth to power’, [PDF] identifies five key issues that influence whether people are comfortable sharing what they think or what they know.
- Personal conviction: How strongly people believe in their own opinion
- Risk awareness: How well they understand the likely consequences of speaking up
- Political awareness: How savvy they are about the internal politics that might get in the way of their message being well received.
- Social awareness: How aware they are of the labels that are attached to them (man/woman/young/old) and how this affects how they will be heard
- Judgement: How well they understand what to say and how to say it, to give themselves the best chance of being listened to.
Being aware of these factors is an important first step for leaders who want to encourage a more open dialogue in their organisations.
But there are also practical actions leaders can take to make it easier for people to speak up - whether they are putting forward a small idea about how to improve customer service or highlighting a serious issue of professional wrong-doing.
1. Meet people on their turf, not yours
Managers think that by saying their door is always open, people will feel comfortable coming to them with their issues and ideas.
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This small but subtle inference, however, that they should come to you, sends a clear message about your level of ‘power’ and may put a barrier in the way of people coming forward. Offer to meet people on their territory – or find somewhere neutral.
2. Understand that your status creates distance
The labels that people attach to you (ie. Your role, gender, background and age) will affect how they speak to you.
Be aware that it may be intimidating for a young employee to speak honestly to a senior manager, or that some female employees may find a very vocal, opinionated male difficult to approach. Think about the labels you attach to other people too.
Who do you prefer to listen to? Who do you take seriously and who do you dismiss out of hand?
3. Appreciate how risky it is for others to speak up to you
The level of perceived risk is one of the key factors people take into account when deciding whether to speak up or stay silent. The personal stakes for an employee can be high if, for example, they decide to expose some kind of wrong-doing by people in the organisation more senior to them. Employees also worry that if they challenge the way things are done, questions may be asked about whether they ‘belong’. If people are to speak out, they need to feel safe.
4. Be self-aware
Take a look in the mirror and reflect on how you have responded when people have challenged you in the past.
Do you get impatient and jump in too quickly? Are you defensive if someone questions the status quo or do you welcome new ideas with welcome arms? Think about how you react when people come to speak to you – and how that is likely to make others feel.
5. Create the right conditions
People need to feel they have ‘permission’ before they will speak up and voice their views. Think about whether the culture of your department or organisation encourages this or puts barriers in the way.
If the over-riding management style is authoritative and directive, with formal protocols for getting in front of senior managers, people will be inhibited from speaking out.
6. Make time in your diary
If you want people to tell you the things you need to know, you need to give them time and space to do so. Don’t set up a meeting and then cut people off after five minutes or spend the whole time surreptitiously looking at your phone. Make it clear you value people’s input by allocating sufficient time in your diary and focusing on what they have to say.
7. Make it a dialogue
Be curious about what people have to say and accept that there are always multiple perspectives on how things should be done – none of which are necessarily right.
Be open to discussion rather than shutting the conversation down immediately if you don’t agree. Notice what you do in the conversation that allows others to open up, and equally what you do that shuts them down.
8. Make it ordinary for people to speak to you
Find ways to make it less of a big deal for people to speak to you. Don’t shut yourself away behind closed doors.
Walk about and pass the time of day with people on a regular basis. If your team are comfortable talking to you about their children/holidays/last night’s TV, they will be more likely to approach you on important work-related issues when they need to.
9. Leave your ego at the door
How humble are you when it comes to listening to others? Is it your way or the highway or are you open to different perspectives?
In today’s complex environments, the ‘hero’ leader who is single-handedly responsible for success is becoming obsolete. The key to success – and to avoiding catastrophe – is to tap into the collective wisdom of others.
There is nothing more frustrating than plucking up the courage to speak to someone senior, only to never hear from them again. It won’t always be possible to act on what people tell you, but at least give them the courtesy of explaining why not – or if you are going to take action, outlining your plan and what they can expect to happen.