Do You Realise How Scary You Are?


By Megan Reitz and John Higgins

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”.

Think again.

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.


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.

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The ‘deaf spot’

For many organisations we have studied, the first response to all this is to send employees on workshops focused on making them braver – infusing in them the courage to speak up. This is vital work. But it is insufficient – especially if the last time someone spoke up, they mysteriously disappeared – or absolutely nothing happened. You can have all the courage in the world, but if no-one is listening, it takes very little time for courage and commitment to evaporate.

We forget about the importance of listening, predominantly because we think we are already pretty good at it.

In our research, we have discovered that developing and training leaders and managers (and in fact all employees) to listen up is perhaps even more fruitful than the work on speaking up. But listening up remains very much a ‘deaf spot’, something that we don’t even notice isn’t there.


We’ve got to talk about power – seriously

We forget about the importance of listening, predominantly because we think we are already pretty good at it. We think we are pretty good at it because we forget that others might perceive us to be powerful, for various reasons, and that therefore they might think twice before they open up.

When we talk and listen with others, whether we are conscious or not about it, we assess our relative status and authority. We apply labels and titles to ourselves and to one another – gender, age, job title, ethnicity, appearance, personality – and these convey different levels of power. For example, when Megan was in her 20s she was told that she had a ‘problem’ because when she presented analysis to senior teams she was labeled as ‘young’ and ‘woman’ (or occasionally ‘girl’). ‘Young girl’ in the context of British Board Rooms at the time (and still today of course), does not scream ‘listen to this person!’

However, just because we don’t feel powerful, does not mean others don’t see us in that way. We recently worked with a man in his 30s who had been rapidly promoted to a senior role. He personally felt intimidated by the level of expectations placed upon him – and found it difficult to navigate the politics of the senior team. In no way did he feel powerful – and that was why it was such a surprise to receive 360 feedback from his team that they perceived him as scary! It turns out that his response to his own lack of confidence was to put on a façade of seriousness – he thought if he made sure his face was expressionless then others would not see how nervous he was. In fact, it had the opposite effect – as his colleagues couldn’t tell what he was thinking and feeling, it made them more nervous of him.

When we have advantage through our labels, we often don’t notice – it is just the way of life. We only tend to notice when we don’t have the ‘right’ labels. We notice our powerlessness more than our power – and this means we can discount our scariness and will need to work hard to enable others to speak up.

If we want to shift patterns of speaking and listening, then we must talk about how we perceive power differences and why. But this isn’t an easy subject to bring up.


Hearing the TRUTH

• Through our research we developed a framework, which we turned into the mnemonic TRUTH, which identifies five issues at stake when we speak and listen up and helps us to bring issues of power out into the open:

• How much do you TRUST the value of your opinion, in comparison to how much you trust the value of others’ opinions?

• What are the RISKS involved when you or others speak up?

• Do you UNDERSTAND the politics of who says what to who… and why?

• Are you aware of the TITLES and labels others attach to you and you attach to others – and how that shapes what gets said in your conversations?

• Do you know HOW to choose the right words at the right time in the right place…or how, skilfully, to help others to speak up through what they say and do?

We use this framework in our book, Speak Up, to help readers figure out how they might be scary to others and how to reduce unhelpful power dynamics. Reflecting on listening up specifically, how would you answer these questions?

 Trust: Whose opinion do you value and seek most often? Whose don’t you?

 Risk: Imagine being in the shoes of different colleagues: what might they be afraid might happen if they challenge you or ‘mess up’ in front of you (even if you disagree with their take on this)?

  Understanding: Why do you get told certain things? What is the politics of what you get to hear? What don’t you get to hear so easily because of who you are?

  Titles: What labels do others put on you that might increase your status and authority in their eyes (even if you disagree)?

  How-to: How do you respond when you get challenged? How do you invite people to speak up? Specifically – what do you say, where, when and how?


How to be less scary

Here are three questions, taken from our book, which, if you address, can lesson your scariness and help others to speak up.

1. How do you respond when someone challenges you or tells you something you don’t want to hear?

Firstly, if you are now struggling to remember the last time someone challenged you, then you are probably really scary! If you can remember some instances, think back over a few and try to remember what you said and what body language and facial expression you might have used. Think about what you did next – how did you act on what was said? How would the person who spoke up feel? We know from our research that one in four junior employees expect to be punished if they speak up about a problem. Punished here could mean something as obvious as being fired or missing out on promotion, or it could mean being ‘told off’ or being lightly teased or ignored.

If you have been brilliant 9 times out of the last 10 times you were challenged, but once you reacted quite badly, then unfortunately it is this one time you will be remembered for.

If you have been brilliant 9 times out of the last 10 times you were challenged, but once you reacted quite badly, then unfortunately it is this one time you will be remembered for. That will be the story that will be told and you will need to work hard to turn that around.

Helping others to speak up means you have to make them feel that you welcome their thoughts and if they aren’t acted upon, you will need to explain why.


2. What signals do you send out to others at work?

Ironically, you might not know how you respond – because no-one has given you straight feedback on it (because you’re scary!) In our work we come across many individuals (like the quickly promoted man referred to above) who don’t realise how others read their non-verbal signals. They assume that the intention behind their behaviour is the same as its impact on others.

We are all wired to watch others extremely carefully in order to judge whether it is safe to speak up. An errant eyebrow, or a ‘thinking face’ that, because of its frown gets translated into ‘disagreement’, is enough to silence others.

Your colleagues are best placed to let you know what you may not realise about yourself – but of course you have to make it safe and easy for them to give you this feedback.


3. How do you invite people to… speak up?

Inviting others to speak well requires you to think about why, who, what, when and where:

• Why do you need to hear certain voices?

• Whose voice don’t you hear that you need to?

• What words and body language should you use to make it easy for the other to speak up?

• When is the best moment to ask for input from others (in a group, one-to-one, when they are in a good mood)?

• Where should you ask (virtually, face to face, in a meeting, at the café)?

Saying to your colleagues, when they are in the middle of something, ‘please give me some feedback’ may not elicit the best response. Saying ‘I’m trying to help the team to say what they think and feel – it’s really important. In this meeting, it would really help me if you could look at the signals I am sending out and let me know at the end one thing that I could do that would help others to speak up even more freely’ may elicit more information.

Your colleagues are best placed to let you know what you may not realise about yourself – but of course you have to make it safe and easy for them to give you this feedback.

Your invitation is important and you have to make it easier for others to give you challenging news. Other strategies, that we mention in the book, include the CEO who instigated a ‘devil’s advocate’ card in her new and submissive team – the person with the card had to offer the challenging voice to any decisions being made. She used their habit of compliance to institutionalise speaking-up! There was a leader of a public sector department who, on announcing a restructure via Skype, gave out the information in fifteen minutes and then shut down the call for an hour. The department staff in their local, small teams were given the chance to discuss the news and come up with questions collectively (and therefore more safely) which were then responded to when the call was opened up again.

Managers and leaders need to hear from employees. Personally, organisationally and socially we cannot afford silence. You may well be lovely and approachable; however, you may need to work harder than you think to enable others to speak up freely to you.


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.


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