Now I will look at how leaders need to conduct speak up conversations that make it safe and worthwhile for employees to speak up.
In part one of this series on speak-up we saw that leaders need to encourage their team members to speak up long before there is a critical thing to say : They need to create a culture of constructive feedback, where saying uncomfortable truths and keeping each other accountable for ethical behavior is normal. Speaking up is most of all a communication and relationship problem. If you have good communications and a good relationship with your coworkers, if they trust you, if you share responsibilities with them, speaking up is much easier.
Sounds easy and logical?
Of course, but in practice it is not so easy to do.
As with most leadership topics we often observe a knowing-doing gap: In theory we know what would be the right thing to do, but in practice there are many obstacles that keep us from doing them. It is a bit like living a healthy life: We all know what to do (no sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, lots of exercise, enough sleep etc.), but actually doing it in a consistent way can be so hard. It is like Chip and Dan Heath say in their bestselling book « Switch » : Your rational mind is just the tiny rider on the big elephant of our irrational behavior, desires and emotions. Our rational mind might decide that it is the right thing to do to go jogging every morning at 6 a.m., but the irrational elephant of our deepest emotions and desires throws the alarm clock in the corner, when we need to stand up to go running.
To overcome the inertia of our own inner elephant, we need a lot of practice, reflection and feedback. That is why good leaders need to invest in self-development work. If they find ways to effectively deal with their inner irrational elephant, they can also go ahead and create an environment that makes it easier for their followers to become better leaders themselves. Leaders’ influence on their followers’ elephant is always limited, but they can influence the path of their followers’ elephants.
In the case of speak-up, leaders need to work on their own intuitively defensive reaction to unpleasant feedback (elephant) and they need to create structures that make speak-up normal.
In my fist blog post I already spoke about the structures that can turn speak-up into a normal practice (e.g. integration in team meetings).
Now I will explore how leaders need to react to a team member’s voicing of ethical concerns.
Let’s imagine the following scene :
Your coworker Claire, an engineer, comes to see you and tells you that she thinks that the new promising product your team has been working on since one year will need an expensive safety check. She also thinks that without this safety check this product could create a lot of damage and might even endanger lives. You are infuriated: In your opinion, Claire has the tendency to over-engineer and is not enough business oriented. Furthermore, you are under a lot of pressure from your boss to finally push this product to market. It would be very difficult for you to explain another delay because of the – in your opinion – unlikely possibility of safety risks.
How should you react?
They have to do seemingly simply things like listening to their team members. Easy said, hard to do. We are often hard-wired to respond instead of taking the ideas of others in. Especially leaders are tempted to jump too quickly to conclusions and offer solutions. Understandable, after all a manager’s job is to solve problems…sometimes they are so eager to solve the problem, that they do not take the time necessary to really understand what is going on by using tools like active listing and asking the right questions. Leaders should never underestimate the small problems their team members might address. You never know, they might be the beginning of bigger problems or the tip of an iceberg.
You natural tendency could be defensive. You really want to market this product soon and you are uncomfortable to explain this to your boss. After all, no product is without risk…and we need to earn mo