By Anne OUIMET
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Toni Morrison
Language is solely explored in the corporate world for its importance to leaders’ effective communication. The storytelling that motivates teams, appeals to Talents and gains investors’ trust, the marketing tag line that attracts consumers, the empathetic communication used to accompany change, the culturally sensitive supporting international business development, the value-based internal communication that builds corporate culture and of course, the body language recently brought to its highest levels of refinement by the tenant of the White House!
Yet leaders are constantly reminded to listen more than they speak.
And when focus is on language – as in employees’ speech, liability, risks and potential threats to corporate interests rapidly crawl on all four. Stories like Google’s accused of illegally terminating James Damore for his views or the protections offered to whistle blowers fuelling corporate fears.
So freedom of speech would only concern authors, journalists, political activists, public speakers, artists, … to serve as the foundation for democracy?
Not quite. Free speech is also vital for business to thrive.
Henry Ford is said to have cynically asked « Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached? » A century later, with the soon completed digitalization, robotization and automatization of work and machines performing the repetitive, strenuous or dangerous tasks, hands are actually no longer needed. But not even brains either! Machines also perform the most complex equations and analyses. They even research, process and store amounts of data the human brain fails to grasp.
So, what’s left for humans in the workplace?
While Frederik Taylor’s 1900s goals of productivity, reliability and efficiency will be achieved by robots and machines, the only thing these won’t ever do is critically think, challenge what exists and imagine what does not. This capacity, that stems from what Daniel Cable calls the “seeking system”, pushed our ancestors to leave Africa, and is very soon to send us to Mars. For this capacity knows no limit, it is the one human power of all superpowers and is construed on our language, the cornerstone of human cognition!
Language and the human mind
What is speech? Generations of academics have struggled to answer this question. The idea that God endowed man with speech prevailed until the mid 1900s when evolution theorists suggested it had rather evolved according to various natural laws directly from animal screams. Mid 1970s, Noam Chomsky – Yale star linguist, mocked this idea, asserting that humans were rather born with a genetically transmitted “language organ” that enables speech. This was since proven wrong – including by neuroscience, but if questions still persist today about most features of the human language and how it is created and processed in the human brain, what is absolutely certain about language is that it is a transcendent faculty that is the sole power of humans.
And language is not only a means of communication for humans. It is first and foremost the basis of discursive thinking. So if feelings and emotions can remain mere experiences, on the contrary ideas, opinions, knowledge, require words even just to merely emerge in the human brain. Words are what allow thoughts to be formed: they serve as the essential support for thoughts to surface. It is with this extraordinary power that humans designate material objects that surround them but also what is immaterial and does not belong to their own experience, time frame or reality. “Without language, there would be no future to imagine, no vision to share, no stories, no politics, no religion, no knowledge, no science, nothing”… Magical, language can thus produce and transmit an infinite number of ideas about an infinite number of novel images, with the use of a finite number of words. And by imagining, evoking, explaining, persuading, recounting, learning and sharing – including what does not even exist, humans create a “second world” which they entirely control in a special form of reality reflection.
This second world is personal, shaped by culture and education, time and space, and is what defines the self. So beyond offering the capacity to interact and socialize, language provides humans with an identity. It allows us to exist in our own mind and, for the social animals we are, enables us to present our “self” to others and interact with them. Thus beyond Descartes’ I think therefore I am is What I think is who I am! Language thus plays a critical role to regulate all mental processes. It’s importance for human is far more critical than its utilitarian role.
Language in the workplace
Gallup’s latest State of the American Workplace conducted from 2018 to 2019 reveals that only 30% of American workers are engaged at work, enjoying their job and believing they make their organization better, every day. At the other end of the spectrum, 16% are completely disengaged, and feel they have a negative impact on their organization while 51% are not engaged, barely getting by their day at work. At the same time, the report reveals that just 3 in 10 U.S. workers strongly agree that their opinion seem to count. Similar results would have certainly been obtained in Europe.
Engagement is directly related to how much one’s opinion count as for those 67% who are not engaged at work, the fact that their opinion does not count simply means that they – as individuals, do not count. Because what we think is who we are.
Companies spend huge amounts of money – every year, to develop employee engagement with programs striving to create a great work environment where everyOne can bring their whole self at work. They support grass root initiatives in the form of Employee Resource Groups or others dedicated to minorities, and set up inclusion and diversity teams tasked to foster the inclusion of diverse employees, women, LGBT community, ethnical groups… Despite this effort, engagement is still low, and minority groups still under-represented in the corporate world.
The reason is: women breakfasts, LGBT talks and ethnic diversity days do not give a voice to these employees. It is still the language of power and of the majority that shapes organization, the one that is heard and resonates at all levels of an Organization. Until an effective voice (and seat) is given to those 7 out of 10 employees who believe their opinion does not count no change is to be expected.
What hinders speech in the workspace?
Why do employees remain silent when they would want to speak up? Why do they let unfair or even illegal actions happen in their presence – even repeatedly, without speaking up? Why do employees hold back their views when they believe a project is heading for disaster? Why can’t they speak freely at work?
Status confers a louder voice to higher ranked employees who enjoy greater freedom of speech. That freedom is directly correlated with their higher engagement at work. Rising in the ranks, leaders acquire more power which makes their colleagues inclined to pay more attention to what they say, agree with them and even laugh more at their jokes. Unfortunately, this tends to also feed their ego, thus reducing their capacity to listen.
Culture also determines the level of freedom of speech enjoyed by individuals. Traditionally in France for example, and in many other school systems in Europe, Asia and the Arab countries, pupils and students did not have the right to speak up and challenge, nor to form or voice an opinion; they were not encouraged to critically think. “The truth” and all learnings, emanate from those with the power to teach, traditionally women in the first years of education and men in higher classes. So in hierarchical organizations, adults educated in such contexts tend to believe they have less right to express their views than their higher ranked colleagues.
At home – the same, men sitting at the far end of the dining table enjoyed a greater right to speak and could end any discussion with a loud “because I say so”. The patriarch’s voice is still – often, louder and more powerful than that of women or children. Language is thus used by speakers to express power and identity and gender does affect how they speak, and how their speech is perceived.
People thus learned that some have a greater right to speak than others. And this chiefly includes men, as the father and knowledgeable figure, the one who knows and holds the power. This is ingrained in many national cultures and in turn, influences company culture in a decisive way.
The legacy of the industrial revolution management systems still affects freedom of speech in the corporate world. Indeed, to achieve greater efficiency, workers were dissuaded to reflect, question or challenge the production methods or objectives set by the hierarchy. These early 1900s systems enabled thousands of employees to perform simple, narrow and decontextualized tasks, while their performance – only measured in numbers and directly impacting their pay, was closely monitored. Still today, a huge blind spot often remains in management’s perspective as the voice of workers who perform tasks and actually know how they are performed is not heard.
Why should Leaders actively free speech?
Efforts invested in recent year to push for the inclusion of various dimensions of diversity in the workplace are pointless if diverse views are not heard. That is the only way increased diversity will have a positive impact on corporate culture. Indeed, more skirts, colours or sexual preferences at work, and even in the board room, has no impact on culture or employees’ sense of belonging unless they enjoy an equal right to speak. It is with their own language that they will influence organizations and feel they belong.
Worse, if in an organization, speaking can lead to reprisals or being “out”, the fear system is activated and individuals shut themselves up. They may keep the alienating right to whine and complain in the breakroom, but the constructive speech that allows expressing fully oneself is left to those in power.
The need for innovations
Businesses and institutions are in the middle of a new industrial revolution, fuelled by digitisation and globalisation. Some are struggling just to catch up with building the basic digital infrastructure upon which setting their internal management systems while others are already exploring how technologies can advance their business and solve their clients’ trickiest problems. Lagging behind will not be forgiven by markets, investors, clients or potential employees.
To innovate, companies need employees. Machines are able to understand the intricacies of language and how humans communicate and this enables them to use language. AI has even progressed in sentiment analysis, question answering and joint multi-task learning. However, machines will not critically think, challenge what exists and imagine what does not.
But for humans, this capacity to innovate is innate and limitless. Prompted by the seeking system, exploring, experimenting and learning is part of human nature, and offers the true intrinsic motivation that leads to feeling engaged and finding a purpose in tasks. However, language is the essential condition for the seeking system to activate. If not heard, employees feel they do not count. If they don’t count, they don’t engage. Worst, if punishment (of any sort) is experienced for voicing creative ideas that challenge, question or disagree, a sclerosis of thoughts and poverty of thinking ensues.
The need for healthy corporate bodies
As freedom of speech is an essential condition for a healthy democracy, so it is for companies’ health. For this reason, speech is increasingly protected in the corporate sphere, at least formally.
The 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Law (SOX) imposes companies listed in US stock exchange to set up procedures by which employees’ speech is protected in the event it denounces reprehensible acts. In Europe, protection extends to termination in case of reporting illicit acts. The Council of Europe further recommends that “[National legislations] offer protection against any form of retaliation for speaking up including unfair dismissal, harassment or any other punitive or discriminatory treatment”.
Whistle blowing is proven to be an effective tool to combat corruption, fraud, abuse, severe wrongdoing and even sexual misconduct. “Corruption often goes unchallenged when people do not speak out about it. (…) From exposing multimillion-dollar financial scams to dangerous medical practices, whistleblowers play a crucial role in saving resources and even lives”.  Laws therefore seek to overturn the lack of reporting culture which still prevails in most societies and organizations. For example, the European Commission Special Eurobarometer on Corruption revealed that “over 81% of respondents said they did not report corruption that they experienced or witnessed to anyone” .
The same, the French #metoo led to heated debate about whether this was fostering public good or merely threatening society and organizations’ stability. In France, sexual harassment will be experienced by 20% of women in their professional career while only 5% of all cases are brought to justice and 30% denounced through internal mechanism while the vast majority of witnesses remain silent.
Many global corporations still fight these protections offered to speech and have obtained, like in Europe that “(…) information can only be disclosed by whistle blowers as a last resort.” However, with the explosion of social media, people already enjoy powerful channels for sharing concerns, publicly. So today, seeking to curtail speech is illusory. Corporations are better intended to protect speech and embrace the freedom of speech – internally, for a vibrant and healthy corporate culture, than control damages when challenging voices are heard outside.
Freeing speech: where will pressure come from?
At the same time social media offer powerful tribunes for speech to resonate, globalisation and modernisation of societies have led to the erosion of Judeo-Christian patriarchal values. Do’s and don’ts and other cultural conventions have blurred. Where women have struggled to challenge men’s speech, younger generations now demand to be heard, and will speak anyway, whether leaders are ready for their speech or not. And if no one hears their speech, they will just criticize more loudly while the best ones – the most creative, will simply leave.
Recently on LinkedIn, a HR leader in a global French corporation denounced the abusive behaviour of her colleague, even naming him with details describing the issue. Is this a good speech? Not necessarily. Most comments to her post condemned it, or at least invited her to pay attention to “l’art et la manière”. But this kind of speech will be heard, more and more.
So ensuring it is safe for employees to speak their mind and challenge, upward, downward and laterally will sometimes lead to negative speech being heard. But the risk of not freeing speech is much more important: not voicing their mind causes frustrations that inflame employees’ bitterness and even resentment against their organization. The language they will use if they feel their voice does not count in their organization will be much more damaging than the internal constructive conversations that freedom of speech fosters.
Concretely, how can Leaders free speech?
- It has been said, written and said again: listen, listen, listen. Being mindful that status naturally grants a louder voice gives leaders impetus to invest into actively listening, questioning and explicitly protecting employees’ effective right to speak, at all levels of their organisation.
- Pay no attention to courtesans and never reward complacent speech. Changing the seating arrangement in meeting rooms or on the office floor can also contribute to modifying the dynamics of the conversations and decision-making processes, and help reduce the impact of status on employees’ capacity to speak up.
- Explicitly encourage challenging critical thinking and visibly protect speech that disagrees by questioning further when someone voices an opinion that departs from yours or the group’s. Meaningfully show that all arguments are heard and offer substantial reasons why, if not acted upon.
- Develop overture and curiosity for diverse languages as leaders’ speed, syntax, rhythm or other linguistic features are not universal and may very well differ from clients’, customers’, employees’ or members of diversity groups. By being curious and seeking to understand diverse languages, leaders build meaningful connections throughout their organization.
- Abolish anonymous feedback and ensure constructive observations are valued, transparent and acted upon – upward, laterally and downward.
- Set out your meetings to be relevant and useful for each participant, from their own point of view. Request and hear their feedback, and involve them into deciding agendas, rhythm, format. Encourage creative and challenging feedback and hear it live. Explain your own needs, recognizing their subjectivity and hear theirs to accommodate both.
- Do not do change to employees, but meaningfully involve into design and implementation. Present the vision and objectives, and the reasons why. But hear employees’ opinion – at all levels of the organization, about these reasons, the vision and the objectives, as well as what they think it means for their work and their role. To modify, update, review or transform any internal system, process or service, integrate the opinion of those who do or use (not those who manage or decide), from the diagnostic phase.
Instead of investing time and emotional energy into the above, leaders could choose to entrust works and tasks with machines and robots. However, they will lose on humans’ unique power that enables companies to thrive: the human language!
About the Author
Anne OUIMET is a Human Rights lawyer educated both in Canada and in the UK (University of Oxford), She served the UN as a field Protection Officer in humanitarian crisis & armed conflicts before providing support to the UN as ONE initiative to transform its siloed operational agencies into aligned collaborating bodies, working in close collaboration with host countries. The expertise developed has since been deepened to support ambitious transformations – from a People-HR-Org perspective, in global and complex organizations including the EBRD, DisneyLand Paris and (currently) the Boston Consulting Group.
 In the US, the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Law was soon followed by similar instruments in Europe, prompted by the Anna Monaghan Case, an employee harassed and eventually suspended from her job for having denounced mistreatment in an Irish nursing home.
 “Alive at work’’, Daniel Cable, Harvard University Press, 2018.
 “Reflections on Language”, Noam Chomsky, New York: Pantheon, 1975.
 For the most fascinating account of the works and debates that raged amongst philologists, linguists, philosophers, anthropologists and psychologists – even until today, I wholeheartedly recommend Tom Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech, Little Brown Editions, 2016, 200 pages.
 For this reason, simplified spelling movements, like the American one that led to dropping orthographic subtleties (tonite or thru instead of tonight or through) for greater efficiency – time and money to be saved, receive ferocious opposition as it is the very thinking process that is simplified through these endeavours. Complex wording and phrases would involve complex neuro activity which would produce more sophisticated intellectual reflections.
 Michael C. Corballis “The Truth about Language, What it is and Where it came from”, University of Chicago Press, 2017, 288p.
 Research even evidences the importance of early syntactic language use for normal brain development as it uncovers language deprivation syndrome and how much language dysfluency affects behavioural, psychosocial and psychiatric health. In addition, “(…) evidence suggests that delays in establishing and taking part in communication via language have consequences on the capacity to understand that another person thinks and feels differently (the Theory of the Mind) that can be both problematic and long-lasting.” Theory of the Mind in Deaf Children, chapter 3, Morgan, Meristo & Hjelmquist, 2016, pp. 44 & ss.
 The results of recent brain imaging studies show language as an autonomous cognitive mechanism that involves dynamic interactions that connect the inferior frontal and superior temporal cortices functionally and structurally. “Language, mind and brain”, by Angela D. Friederici et als. Nature Human Behaviour, Vol. 1, pages 713–722 (2017).
 State of the American Workplace, 4rd edition of Gallup’s, published 2019.
 State of the American Workplace, 3rd edition of Gallup’s, published 2017.
 “Ego is the Enemy of Good Leadership”, Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, Harvard Business Review, 6 November 2018.
 “Almost every area of language has been shown to be connected with gender, from the smallest segments of sound to broadly characterized discourse strategies” “Men, Masculinities, and Language” in Language and Linguistics Compass, Scott Kiesling, University of Pittsburgh, 2007.
 “Fear is kryptonite to the seeking system” in Alive at Work, Daniel M. Cable, Harvard Business Review Press, 2018, p. 33.
 AI’s Next Great Challenge: Understanding the Nuances of Language, Richard Socher, Harvard Business Review, 25 July 2018.
 What is clear is that the absence of protection has a chilling effect, and discourages speech Guja v. Moldova, Case #14277/04, judgement of 12 February 2008 applicable to a public servant, further extended to private sector employees dismissed for having denounced appalling working conditions in Heinish v. Germany, Case #28274/08, judgement of 21 July 2011.
 Transparency International, https://www.transparency.org.
 Special Eurobarometer 470 , published December 2017, p. 93.
 Les Chiffres du Harcèlement sexuel au Travail, https://www.egalite-femmes-hommes.gouv.fr, 28 February 2018.
 With employers having the burden of proving that any measure taken against the employee was not related to the information they exposed. Council of Europe, Thematic Factsheet, May 2017.