The employees’ role in 'speaking up'
Above all: To thine own self be true; said Willian Shakespeare hundreds of years ago. It continues to ring true even today.
If you work in any large enterprise, the narrative around speaking truth to power, speaking up, putting your hand up etc. will ring a bell. It’s thrown around quite a lot as an accelerator of building transparency and establishing a strong culture. Most progressive organisations have structures, policies and governance systems that encourage this behaviour.
Given the focus on holistic wellbeing in today’s times, nothing could be more important than allowing, and encouraging the employee to bring their “whole self” to work. Their voice and views along with their work and business deliverables is a critical component of it. The challenge lies in this being treated as a one-way street i.e. what can the organisation and its leaders do to encourage openness, transparency, create a culture where different and conflicting views are heard, and employees don’t fear punitive actions for speaking the truth.
Given our vantage points of having been part of functional leadership teams in both Indian companies and MNCs, we have seen first-hand the role that employees’ can play in driving this enterprise wide behaviour. The narrative around speaking truth to power must be employee driven and employer supported. Here is how “speaking up” helps the employee:
- Command respect - Companies hire employees not only for what they can do but also for how they think, the way they ideate, innovate and bring fresh ideas and perspectives on the table. All this is only possible if one listens carefully, picks up signals across the company on what will help or derail the organisation. Synthesise it all and speak about it at every forum and opportunity that arises. If you want a seat at the table, learn how to “talk your way” there.
- Creates opportunities - Speaking your truth requires courage. Courage creates opportunities. More the employee shows guts and gumption to prepare and share, more avenues start to open up. Visibility across the organisation substantially begins to “go up”, employees are called to pitch to customers, anchor meetings, host events all of which showcase them to larger organisations.
- Alignment with values - Not saying what you deeply believe in can be constraining. It can make you feel powerless and at times, resentment can start to build in. The engagement with the organisation starts to dip, thereby impacting productivity. Staying true to one’s purpose and passion is a career accelerator. If there is dissonance with one’s values, it's imperative the employee speaks up.
- Prepares for leadership - Often leaders don’t have the full picture. Yet, are expected to share not only their point of view but take decisions, thereby moving the organisation forward. Training oneself to do so, builds the executive presence muscle, considered to be the secret sauce of charismatic leaders.
The win for the organisation can be summed up in one line - It showcases your Culture!
And here are a few things colleagues and their managers can do at an individual level.
- Build capability - As basic as this sounds, it’s easier to speak truth to power if you are a credible voice in your area of work. Immerse yourself in your function and ensure you build a deep understanding. Long meaningful stints in the early part of one’s career facilitates this. Deep work works so don’t prioritize speed and growth for expertise in the early to mid-stages of a career. It becomes difficult to fill blind spots as we go further down in our career.
- Build conversational confidence - While depth will give you credibility, breadth will provide you an enterprise wide perspective and confidence. Engage in frequent check in conversations with a wide range of colleagues and learn about their areas of concern, business challenges even if they don’t directly relate to your area of work. It’s easy to get caught up in an echo chamber if your network within the office is limited to people like you. A significant part of speaking up involves building the communication skills that can help you navigate the complexity.
- Scan the political landscape - Build organisational savviness - Speaking truth to power takes practice and it is common for people to make mistakes as they tread this journey. One way to mitigate is to get smart and choose the forums where you will speak up and with leaders with whom you can practice this. The risk -reward ratio of speaking up is not homogenous across various parts of the organisation. Spot the easy opportunities, build confidence and scale up.
Here’s what HR teams can consider to facilitating this behaviour at scale:
- Encourage leaders to develop an appreciation of what their role is in supporting and encouraging this behaviour.
- Coach leaders to articulate their point of view clearly around transparency and accepting different points of view
- Exposing leaders to multiple outside-in examples and challenging their captive expertise. The more leaders feel challenged, the better they will get at being comfortable when proven wrong.
- Help the organisation build a positive mental model for change. Being explicit about what you expect leaders to do / say / behave as they encourage the speak up behaviours. Templatise it to begin with.
- Checking in with leaders when you spot a derailing behaviour like sending ‘shut up’ signals to teams, making people pay a heavy price for disagreements etc.
Some organisations simply don’t have a clear pathway to encourage this culture, others don’t have the leadership bandwidth and capabilities to support it and some don’t see this as a lever of cultural transformation. When done well, a culture where every employee feels empowered to speak up is a force multiplier.