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Megan Reitz

Ashridge Business School

Client Director

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Mastering the art of speaking up: the element of risk

The ability to speak up is more complex than many leaders think it is.

In the first part of this article series, we discussed why trust is an essential part of any conversation. Here, we’re going to progress that by talking about the issue of risk. 

Every day we make choices about whether to speak up or stay silent and whether to listen up or discount someone’s opinion. These choices can have huge consequences for us, our colleagues and our organisations.

We often catastrophise – we imagine the worst that can happen – and this silences us. 

When words form on our lips, or we see them forming on those of someone else, a sense of caution usually kicks in. Once something is said or heard, it can’t be undone – even if it’s ‘off the record’. So trust and risk go hand in hand: we trust that we have something to say, and then we immediately think about the consequences. We often focus on, and see more clearly, the risks of speaking up than the rewards.

All organisations have their own ‘speak up’ culture that plays out in day-to-day conversations emerging from people’s relative sense of power and powerlessness. What gets talked about is a function of what people feel safe to talk about at specific times and places. It reflects the reality of formal and informal hierarchies and the lived experience of ‘what happens when you speak up round here?’

Facing our fears

We are social animals: our greatest fears, according to our research, that prevent us from speaking up are the fear of being perceived negatively and the fear of upsetting or embarrassing the other person. It often feels safer to stay quiet. If we are to enable ourselves and others to speak up, we must first develop a culture that is, using the Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson’s words, ‘psychologically safe’. This means an environment where we feel safe to take an interpersonal risk such as offering an idea or challenging the status quo.

Creating safety is in the gift of the more powerful. Unfortunately, senior leaders are often blind to the risks that others experience.

We often catastrophise – we imagine the worst that can happen – and this silences us. We formulate our understanding of risk primarily through stories that circulate in our organisation, however. Sometimes speaking up does carry risks – in the context of the NHS, stories relating to formal whistle blowing have unfortunately rarely included a happy ending for the whistleblower’s personal career. Two private sector organisations we studied both had interesting stories centred around someone who spoke up…and then ‘disappeared’! So, to reduce our perceptions of risk, one key requirement is to ensure leaders respond well when faced with ideas and challenges. People need to see and experience that it is better to speak up than stay silent.

Psychological safety

One senior military leader we interviewed is scrupulous in never breaking the confidence of what his driver says to him as he’s taken around the country. That driver is always one of the youngest cadets and has to feel safe to speak up if the commanding officer is to stay in touch with what life is like for the most junior people in the organisation. If something gets said that needs attention, then the officer finds another source for that information before acting in order to protect the young cadet. In that way, the lines of communication stay open.

Creating safety is in the gift of the more powerful. Unfortunately, senior leaders are often blind to the risks that others experience. Our research shows they are more ‘optimistic’ (we could say ‘deluded’) that people around them are speaking up. They personally expect and experience more positive consequences from speaking up and so they often imagine others are as privileged as they are. They underestimate how intimidating they are to others (especially in those organisations who claim to have a ‘flat hierarchy’).

Some questions to ask yourself and those around you:

  • What has happened to you when you have spoken up previously? What happens to others around you when they speak up?
  • Who might find you ‘scary’?
  • How safe do the processes and forums in your organisation make it for people to speak up with ideas and problems?

In our next article we will explore the issue of ‘understanding’ – the politics of whose voice gets heard, why and how and whose doesn’t.

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Megan Reitz

Client Director

Read more from Megan Reitz

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