Recently, someone very close to me gave notice at his job. The specific experience and the reasons for his decision to leave his company, led me to think about the critical importance of companies creating and sustaining a “speak up culture.”
Before we move to the story of my friend and the lessons that we can draw from his experience, I want to introduce what I mean by “speak up culture.” Speak up culture exists where “employees’ [provide] upward expression of challenging, but constructive concerns or ideas on work-related issues.” Psychological Safety, or the shared belief that a person won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions or concerns, is a central component of “Speak Up Culture.”
With that introduction, let me return to the story at hand, and the consequences of when an organization fails to foster a culture that enables candid feedback. Here’s what happened:
Employee, we will call him Bob, has worked for the company for less than 2 years. He was brought into a new role within the company, on a new team with a new set of responsibilities, and reporting to a new C-level position. The purpose of this team was to help ensure the security of the company’s products, in particular its cybersecurity.
This was an important role and one that involved challenging the status quo of the organization, including standing up operations and advocating for resource allocations. The C-suite level person that Bob reported to, did a commendable job establishing within his team a culture that enabled everyone to speak up about their concerns, to bring ideas and recommendations, to ask questions and challenge things. What Bob quickly realized, however is that outside of the team, speaking up was not well regarded. It soon became apparent that Bob’s boss was not afforded the opportunity to speak up to his superiors. This led to problems, and in the end, Bob’s Boss (we will call him “Previous Boss”) resigned. Bob and his team were assigned to someone else in the company while they looked for an outside new hire. (We will call him "New Boss".) So, Bob, being accustomed to being able to raise concerns and ask questions with Previous Boss did so with the New Boss.
These questions and concerns are not new among the team and had been openly discussed across the team over the previous year. These unresolved issues were also substantive, going to the core of the team’s mission and remit. Finally, New Boss expressly set 30-minute meetings with members of the team to hear from them on these concerns, needs, etc.
Bob took New Boss’ invitation to discuss his concerns at face value. Anticipating that New Boss may not be quite prepared for the specific questions, Bob drafted a very respectful email in advance of a planned call and advised New Boss that he had several concerns that he hoped to discuss with him and was sending the concerns in advance of their planned call so as not to take him by surprise. At a high level, the email noted three areas of concern and how these areas could be addressed going forward: 1. Budget, 2. Hiring, and 3. Authority of the team to carry out its job.
Here's where everything went very sideways.
New Boss’ response: I disagree with everything you’ve said, and your email irritates me. The planned call did happen, and it went even worse with New Boss telling Bob that his email was offensive. New Boss declined to discuss any of the questions or points raised.
While there is a lot to unpack in New Boss’ responses, from abysmal leadership to terrible management, to outright unprofessionalism, I’m going to focus on the immediate impact of New Boss’ response.
It could be described as the straw that broke the camel’s back. But what is notable is how much a team member is willing and able to shoulder when working in a transparent and respectful environment. Namely, Bob had spent 18-months working in an environment where he was supposed to have a team of up to 5 reporting to him but was never allocated any budget to hire that team. So, the job that should have been done by a team, was being done by him, alone. The tools and technology he needed to do his job, were never authorized. When working with others in the company, he was advised repeatedly that neither he nor anyone on his team had the authority to make things that needed to be done, happen. And still, after 18-months, he remained. Why? Because he had an environment where he could raise concerns, ask questions, push for things to be different. With Previous Boss, he operated in an environment that was not threated by change, but actively encouraged it. The moment that was gone, all the other problems – which are very real and big – became untenable.
Speak Up Culture Defined
The two environments created by Previous Boss and New Boss illustrate the requirements of a “Speak Up Culture” and psychological safety, its benefits, and consequences when such an environment does not exist. From my perspective, what is important to understand, is that this is not specific or limited to things like ethical or compliance violations or inappropriate employee behavior. It is bigger than that; it goes not only to the integrity and sustainability of all operations, but the long-term success of the company overall. What I’m talking about is an environment in which employees – those who are front and center, day-to-day, in the doing of the things, who truly know and understand what is happening, what isn’t, what is working, and so on – are able to say this isn’t working and here is how we can do it better; this is what we need in place and here is why; here's a new thing we can do and why it is a good thing to do.
In my experience and that of so many others, a company that has this culture is rare. Let me be specific: there are many that say they are, but there are very few that are.
Benefits of Speak Up Culture
This isn’t rocket science. It’s not. When companies create and maintain a speak up culture, there are numerous benefits, but I will focus on the three most significant. First, by creating an environment in which team members feel genuinely respected, valued, and appreciated, the company increases retention, but even more important is that team members are willing to go above and beyond, because team members value being respected and appreciated, often more than salary and compensation. Second, increased productivity – and I dare say innovation – results when the people with the knowledge, experience, and know-how are listened to because the right processes, tools, and personnel are put in place and barriers are removed. And third, it prevents very real (and public) instances of misconduct or errors that lead to reputational damage, or even worse, actual harm to a person or persons.
Top 3 Requirements to Create and Sustain a Speak Up Culture
Creating and sustaining – and let’s be very clear sustaining such a culture is the ball game – takes work, intentionality, investment, and commitment. You can’t just say you have a speak up culture – as so many companies do. Walk the walk; don’t just talk the talk.
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