” By Megan Reitz and John Higgins, Harvard Business Review contributor”
A leader in the health industry recalled an incident from 40 years ago that still haunted him. In the early stages of his career he decided he had to speak up about malpractice he had witnessed. He remembered the experience very clearly: “I was hauled before the District Medical Officer… there’s me at 21 and him fifty-odd: ‘Young man, if you think you have any future in this career, you’ll desist from this [questioning] immediately.’ So I did desist.”
To avoid situations like this, most people will consciously or unconsciously weigh up relative power differences before deciding to speak up. And it’s always tempting to think that when you have more power — maybe even just a littlemore – it will be easier to call out wrongdoing. But over the last two years, as we interviewed over 60 business leaders, what we found is that this feeling never goes away. There is always someone or something more powerful than you are — when we spoke with company CEOs, they’d express concern about their boards, and when we spoke with board chairmen, they’d admit to being afraid of the media. No matter how senior the person we interviewed, there was always a lingering doubt about the risks and consequences of speaking up.
In our study, recently published, we sought to understand the complexities surrounding the decision to speak up or not at work — from a small idea about how to change customer service conversations, to a more serious issue of professional wrongdoing. In a previous article we explored how leaders may inadvertently silence others through being blind to their relative power. Now, we share what we’ve learned about those who do speak up. Our research suggests that speaking truth to power requires attention to these five intimately related questions:
1. How much do you believe in your own opinion? Speaking up requires you to believe you have a contribution to make and to feel strongly enough about it to speak up. So how much do you care? How would you feel if you didn’t speak up?
When we spoke to one whistle-blower who had inadvertently discovered that their CEO had been defrauding the company, he described the devastating consequences of speaking up: not only did he lose his job, but his family came apart as well. Asked whether he would blow the whistle again, had he known the consequences, he replied quickly: “Absolutely not!” Then, wracked with distress, he said: “But how could I not have?” Even with the consequences so brutally apparent, this executive felt so strongly that speaking up was the morally right choice that he could not have lived with himself had he stayed silent.
This is an atypical story that stands out because of its drama — in many cases, the morally right course of action is murkier, and the consequences of speaking up are not so devastating. Which leads us to the second question:
2. Do you have a realistic grasp of the consequences of speaking up? By balancing how much we believe in what we have to say with what might happen if we say it, we can decide whether we have the energy and resilience required to do so. People often have an exaggerated fear of the consequences of speaking up, and so we tend to prefer the short-term security of staying silent. How can we best ensure we are being realistic with our fears? Start by considering how those who have previously spoken up have actually been treated. Then don’t forget to reflect on the counter-argument: what are the long-term consequences to you and others of staying silent? And think carefully about who is likely to be affected if you do speak out. This brings us onto the third key question:
3. How will what you have to say affect the political games being played in the organization? The Chief Operating Officer of one of the world’s biggest banks described the environment that fostered the culture that enabled the Libor and related scandals: “It all begins with the organization’s biggest lie.” This lie? “Budgets.” The COO said that as soon as budget conversations were initiated, the political games began. Those new to the organization often fell afoul of the unwritten rules of the game. The organizational culture became so Byzantine with intrigue, and silence so obviously the safest choice, that larger and larger lies were allowed to grow unchecked.
This applies in all organizations. There is always politics in organizations, even in those that say they don’t have any, and there are always written and unwritten rules — with the unwritten ones being those that will usually trip you up.
4. What are the social rules that govern how you speak up and how you are listened to? Human beings label one another all the time, often unconsciously. So we meet someone and label them as: woman or old or American or rich. And then of course we consider their formal organizational label: CEO, sales rep, shelf-stacker, consultant. All these labels convey status, which differs according to context. A consultant in one organization may be expected to speak up and challenge the status quo — that is why they have been brought in — but in another, they might be expected to provide evidence to support the CEO’s stated strategy.
An activist investor in America, responsible for funds worth billions, described how she was often the only woman in the boardroom when she met with the executive teams of the companies she invested in. And she was nearly always the only person aged under 50. Well aware that in these settings the labels “woman” and “young” conveyed lower status, she explained how she sought to build alliances before board meetings by speaking with her co-investors in advance, one-on-one, to secure their support.
Labels matter. If you want to speak up you would be wise to consider what labels are applied to you and the consequences of the labels you are applying to those you are speaking up to. This leads to the final question:
5. What is the most skillful way of speaking up in order to be heard? The Deputy Chairman of a global media organization explained to us that he quickly learned not to challenge the Chairman in a group situation. However, when traveling with the Chairman he knew that when they sat down together in the hotel lobby with a glass of wine, he could say anything he liked — and he would be heard.
Knowing what to say, how, when, and to whom is how you mitigate the consequences of speaking out and amplify the likelihood of being heard. Rehearsing can help, as can actively reflecting on your previous experience of speaking up — what worked, what didn’t, and what did you learn that you should apply in this situation?
The reality is that organizations are soaked in power and power politics. Speaking up is always a political act.
In choosing to speak up or not, a less powerful person has to be acutely aware of their own drivers and behavioral triggers, sensitive to their standing in the formal and informal social hierarchy, and also to the specifics of their organizational culture. There is no one-size-fits-all approach people can adopt. But there is no doubt that organizations of all stripes, and in all sectors, would perform better if more voices were raised, and heard.