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Jun 13, 2022

Walking the Walk: Creating and Sustaining “Speak Up Culture” at Work (or risk having your employees walk out on you)

Sponsored Content provided by Michealle Gady - Founder and President , Atromitos

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. 

  1. Top down, company-wide. To truly have a speak up culture, it must come from the top. The leaders must be the implementers and role models. They must hold themselves and others accountable. They must never behave as New Boss did in the very real example above. And while it is great that individual teams have such a culture, the example above demonstrates how limited that is if the culture is not company-wide. 
  2. Provide Channels, Listen, Act, Give Credit. Your team knows what needs to be improved. They know what is needed to make that improvement. They know to make that improvement. Given them the channels and means to communicate their concerns, questions, and recommendations. Hear them and act. Provide feedback to them on what they have recommended. Explain what steps will be (or have already been) taken, what, if any barriers exist, and how those will be addressed. And always give credit where credit is due. The absolute worst experience is to have someone else take credit for your idea or work. 
  3. Empower. For managers and other leaders in a company to be able to take the action needed (see above), empower them to do so. Don’t take a short-term view of things at the expense of the long-term gain. Often the role of a leader is to remove barriers for those that are driving change, which can mean ceding immediate control. To empower your workforce, you must trust your team, and they need to trust you. There is, therefore, a lot packed into this seven-letter word in practice.
  4. Train. Training, not just managers and leadership, but at all levels of the company is essential. Some people will naturally feel comfortable speaking up. Others will but won’t know the most effective way to do so. Others won’t because they don’t feel comfortable or know how to. Train them on the benefits of speaking up, the channels available to them to do so, and how to do so respectfully and effectively. Train managers and leadership on how to receive and hear such feedback. In many ways, this is a serious exercise in emotional intelligence. Managers and leadership need a wide range of competencies to effectively create and sustain a speak up culture. Do not assume they have these just because they are “managers.” (I refer back to New Boss.) 
As a leader of an organization and a boss, I think a lot about the many variables that go into a successful venture. There is no question that the greatest resource of any organization is its people. My role as a leader is to enable my people to bring their full selves to any task. That cannot happen if they are not free to ask questions, express different views, and bring different ideas and recommendations. It’s not my job to have all the answers. It is my job to listen, be open to input, and take action or empower them to take action.
 Michealle Gady, JD, is Founder and President of Atromitos, LLC, a boutique consulting firm headquartered in Wilmington, North Carolina. Atromitos works with a variety of organizations from health payers and technology companies, to community-based organizations and nonprofits but their work reflects a singular mission: creating healthier, more resilient, and more equitable communities. Michealle takes nearly 20 years’ experience in health law and policy, program design and implementation, value-based care, and change management and puts it to work for Atromitos’ partners who are trying to succeed during this time of dramatic transformation within the U.S. healthcare system. Outside of leading the Atromitos team, Michealle serves as a Board Member for both the Cape Fear Literacy Council and A Safe Place and is a member of the American College of Healthcare Executives and American Health Law Association. ​

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