Why don’t people speak out even when they’ve been told they can?

“But I told them they could speak freely!’ The refrain of the leader who finds out too late that their latest plan is not popular. In fact, not only is this particular plan not popular, it simply won’t work.

Why don’t people speak out even when they’ve been told they can? Because creating a speak out culture takes very conscious leadership effort. And words aren’t sufficient. Simply telling people? Not enough. Not even close. In most corporate structures the seniority gradients and other disincentives to honesty are far too steep to be overcome by words alone.

Sadly, while it is absolutely in leadership’s interest to engage and empower their employees, the ‘natural’ flow of communications remains one way: downwards and directive. Yet senior leaders often lack the up-to-date skill sets of their junior employees. Which begs the question: how can they (leaders) know if their plan will really work if they haven’t asked those (coal-face) who really know?

What to do? As a leader, every word matters. Every action matters more. Tell an employee a hundred times they can speak freely and they might. Reward them once or twice for being honest and they’ll begin to believe. Actually do what they’re suggesting, giving them the credit publicly in the process? That’s when the gradient flattens, the green shoots of a new culture emerge and the real grass root conversations start.

But it doesn’t stop there. Sustained effort is required. One foot wrong, one reversion ‘to expected type’ and leadership’s back on the long snake downwards…and scaling the ladders to a ‘speak out’ culture will be trickier next time around.

Does it matter? Yes. More than ever before, corporate leadership doesn’t have all the answers. Too much is changing too quickly. Listening harder and making it safe to speak out are no longer the aspirations of high-risk industries alone; empowering grass root expertise and listening make undeniable business sense across every sector.

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14th October 2021

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