Speak-up needs trust

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:

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