by Dr. Bettina Palazzo

Speaking-up on ethics in organizations is hard, but crucial. What can companies do, if they want to create a speak-up culture?

The Speak-up Series:

If you want people to tell you the truth, you need to listen well and you need their trust. Like these lifelong friends in an Italian Piazza.
Speak-up needs trust

Scandals like Volkswagen or Fells Fargo made it clear again: Before a scandal erupts, many, many people in the company knew about the ongoing ethics problems for quite a long time. But, why did they not speak up?

If people speak-up or not on unpleasent topics depends on many complex things like leadership, corporate culture and personal character and skills. Let us explore this fascinating landscape together:

1. Speak-up : The Role of Leadership is crucial

Speaking up on topics of ethics and compliance is hard to do. Already speaking up when you disagree or have bad news can be difficult in organizations. But speak-up is important, because companies need to know about ethical problems early, before they become a major scandal.

Research shows that before a corporate scandal is revealed, people in the company knew about the problem for at least a year.

In order to encourage speak-up, you need a climate of trust, where coworkers can speak up in a safe environment knowing that their opinion counts and that they do not have to fear negative effects for themselves and their careers. Very often, though, Leaders discourage speak-up without even noticing :

  • Leaders are bad role models and do not speak up to their superiors themselves. Coworkers will always model their behavior to how their superiors behave. An example: Regular handwashing is very important to prevent infections in hospitals. The most important factor in increasing handwashing is when senior doctors act as role models and frequently wash their hands.
  • Leaders have an authoritarian leadership style that is based on command and control. Clearly this is unfavorable for the creation of a relationship between managers and coworkers that allows to speak up easily. An authoritarian leader presumes he/she knows best and does not empower coworkers to freely share their own, dissenting opinion. When coworkers disagree, they use the force of their authority to get their will.
  • Leaders do not listen to their coworkers.
  • They do not actively ask for their coworkers’ opinion
  • They are not open to feedback.
  • They do not give constructive feedback themselves to coworkers.

We can see, if leaders want their team members to speak up, they need to work on a more participatory leadership style and create a climate where giving and receiving constructive feedback is normal. Only if this open and safe culture is well established, employees will speak up.

The importance of the leader’s role in speak up cannot be over-estimated. This quote from the book « Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement » by Peter T. Coleman and Robert Ferguson sums it up so nicely:

«People with low power who are not convinced their honest perspective is really valued instinctively withhold their ideas. A leader has to do much more than say things like «My door is always open» or «I really want to know what you think” to get the goods from subordinates. The leader has to prove again and again through statements and actions that honesty is valued and that constructive disagreement goes unpunished.”

So how can leaders create speak-up culture?

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.

Furthermore, leaders need to sharpen their senses and watch out if coworkers fall into silence over a topic. If everybody is chronically of the same opinion in team meetings and nobody ever offers a dissenting opinion, it is time to take a trusted team member a side and ask some open questions.

Finally, leaders need to make speaking up normal:

  • They should explain to all of their team members form their first day of working together, that sharing their open opinion with him or her, is vital and that they will be receptive to constructive feedback and always say “thank you”.
  • Leaders can integrate speak-up into their team meeting routines. Of course, they will need to role-model this first.
  • Leaders need to prove that their followers can trust them and that speaking-up will be safe and worthwhile.

So we see, speaking up is first and foremost a communication and relationship problem.

If you have good communications and a good relationship with your coworkers, if they trust you, if you do share responsibilities with them, speaking up is much easier.