Most managers know they need to create an environment where people can speak up in order to hear innovative ideas and avoid scandals. Research from a new book ‘Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard’ (Financial Times Publishing 2019), suggests that most managers assume they are approachable – but in fact they are ‘deaf’ to the effect that their status and authority has on others. In this article its authors, Hult Professor Megan Reitz and her research partner John Higgins from Gameshift, share their findings, invite you to reflect on your ‘scariness’ and provide advice on how to enable others to speak up.
A CEO mutters “See? I knew they didn’t have anything to say!” as he comes off the stage at a large company meeting. He has just asked the audience “Do you have any questions?” and was met with silence. He reads this to mean a lack of initiative – something he’d been complaining about for quite some time. He’d called the meeting to prove his point.
He is utterly blind to the silencing effect that his power has on his colleagues; to how risky it feels for others to speak up to him. Consequently, he is oblivious to the ideas that he never gets to hear about and the poor practice that is likely to lead to his and his organisation’s downfall.
You may think this is an extreme case. You may, right now, be thinking “Well, luckily I know that I am really approachable – my door is always open – but others are really bad at this”.
Our five-year research project on ‘speaking truth to power’ shows that most of us think we are more approachable than we really are. It shows that, even if we are lovely and open, we may still seem scary because of the titles and labels others apply to us that convey status and authority.
Importantly, our research shows that the more senior you are, the more you are likely to think others are speaking up – when they aren’t. This silence costs.
Scandals, where organisational reputations and survival are at stake, regularly hit the headlines. More recently the Goldman Sachs 1MDB scandal and the Boeing 737 safety issues have shown us what can happen when employees don’t speak up – or aren’t heard. Silence costs careers, relationships, reputations and in some cases, lives.
The more senior you are, the more you are likely to think others are speaking up – when they aren’t. This silence costs.
However, this isn’t just about the ‘bad stuff’. At a time when it is impossible to attend any conference without being bombarded with the words ‘agility’ and ‘disruption’, we know we need to do things faster and better. But we must also do things more ethically and considerately if we are to stand any chance when it comes to addressing the pressing environmental concerns that we face. Put simply, in order to survive, let alone thrive, we need to be able to access the ideas in employees’ heads so that we can challenge the way we do things – and come up with better ways.
Unfortunately, enabling employees to speak up turns out to be trickier than it sounds.
About the Authors
Megan Reitz is Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Hult International Business School, where she speaks, researches and consults on the intersection of leadership, change, dialogue and mindfulness. She is on the Thinkers50 Radar of global business thinkers and listed as one of HR Magazine’s most influential thinkers. She is author of Dialogue in Organizations and Mind Time and her new book, written with John Higgins, is called Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard (Financial Times Publishing, 2019).
John Higgins is Research Director at Gameshift and is an expert in psychologically literate organisational working. Drawing on his experiences as a researcher, coach, consultant and tutor, his work focuses on working with patterns of power to shift organisational cultures to become more transparent and humane.