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Why cementing a ‘speak up’ culture is critical to business success

Leaders looking to boost the productivity and collaborative ability in remote or hybrid teams need to provide the culture, tools and opportunities for all employees to speak up and confidently contribute. This is easier said than done. 

While it’s necessary for every single job, speaking up carries inherent risks – and for some individuals, it’s riskier and harder to do. Working remotely can also present new challenges that should be dealt with proactively. This month, we caught up with Felicity Menzies, CEO and Diversity & Inclusion (DEI) Consultant at Include-Empower, about how leaders can cultivate diversity, equity and inclusion by enabling safer discussions and collaborative decision-making. 

Q: Why do people generally find speaking up at work challenging? 

Felicity: When we admit mistakes or gaps in our understanding, propose a new idea, or challenge the ideas and decisions of others, we bear interpersonal risk – the possibility of being discredited, penalised or humiliated. 

Interpersonal risk is greater in ambiguous and complex environments when there is less certainty attached to our ideas or when our counterpart has higher status or more power, experience or expertise than us. 

working together

Minority status can also increase interpersonal risk. Employees from underrepresented backgrounds face higher levels of prejudice, discrimination, bullying, harassment and other workplace incivility.

So it’s important for leaders to consider their employees’ physical safety and security needs as well as psychological needs – the maintenance of high self-esteem and connection with others.

Our universal needs motivate us to avoid situations that potentially bruise our ego or result in social exclusion or loss of status, or that may attract tangible penalties such as a financial punishment or reduced opportunities for career progression. When we perceive these risks to be high, we are motivated to engage in impression management techniques. We seek to prevent being perceived as ignorant, incompetent or deviant by refraining from offering novel ideas, masking failures, or conforming to cultural ideals and norms.

In contrast, in psychologically safe settings, interpersonal risks are low. 

Psychological safety involves contexts in which we perceive that we will not be penalised nor negatively judged for mistakes or failures, for challenging the status quo, or for being different. In such contexts, we are more willing to share novel ideas and to speak-up on sensitive issues.

Read more Diversity, Equity and Inclusion articles »

Q: Why is developing psychological safety and a 'speak up' culture so important to business success?

Felicity: Google’s 2015 study ‘Project Aristotle’ found that psychological safety was the most significant success factor underpinning high-performance teams across the organisation.

speak up cultureContrary to their expectations, the researchers reported that the capabilities of the individual team members mattered less for team performance than group processes (how team members shared information and collaborated). In particular, when individual members attached a low interpersonal risk to voicing their ideas or making mistakes, they were more likely to share novel information or challenge the status quo. In turn, the group was able to access and integrate a greater diversity of thought to drive innovation and to improve judgment and decision-making. 

Employees in psychologically safe teams were also less likely to want to leave Google, brought in more revenue and were rated as effective twice as often by executives.

Psychological safety also promotes innovation through the 'broaden and build mode of positive emotion'. Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina has found that positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broaden the mind and encourage divergent thinking and creativity.

happy employeesPsychological safety also supports inclusion by creating a safe place for individuals to bring their whole selves to work – an environment where team members can share novel ideas and perspectives free from the risk of ridicule, rejection or penalty. In a psychologically safe environment, employees are less likely to cover or mask their differences in thinking, behaviours, or lifestyles to fit in and avoid minority stressors, and are more productive, effective and experience higher levels of wellbeing. Engagement is higher and turnover is lower because employees feel valued for their unique contribution.

On the flip side, a lack of psychological safety has contributed to many noteworthy organisational errors and failures. A reluctance to speak up can be particularly problematic for industries with a higher risk of physical injury or professional misconduct. 

Cultivating psychological safety reduces the reliance on ‘whistleblowers’ because it fosters an environment where all team members feel empowered to question the behaviours and decisions of others and to call out questionable practices.

Q: Can you talk us through why it’s so important for leaders to build capability for fostering psychological safety? 

leadership conceptFelicity: Research shows that line manager relationships are instrumental in encouraging or suppressing speaking up and listening more widely in the organisation. Leaders cast a long shadow. A single instance of a team leader critiquing, talking over, or otherwise dismissing a contribution or concern or raised by a junior team member can damage perceptions of psychological safety for the whole team.

However, because psychological safety is a group-level phenomenon, what matters is not only the behaviours of leaders but also the behaviours of all group members. Leaders must pay attention to workplace interactions as well as their own responses.

It can be difficult for leaders to appreciate that team members experience the workplace differently to them. Leader blind spots mean that leaders typically underestimate the effect of their workplace behaviour or practices on others—they cannot 'see' barriers to speaking up because they do not experience those barriers themselves. 

Recording perceptions of psychological safety and seeking to understand the barriers through workforce analytics and employee focus groups is powerful for disrupting leader blind spots. Once leaders understand there is a problem, they need to know how to solve it. Many leaders do not know what to do to cultivate a speak-up culture. 

Q: What are some of the techniques leaders can adopt to cultivate psychological safety and create a more inclusive workplace? 

  1. Foster a pro-diversity mindset and build diverse teams. Leaders should state explicitly that diversity is a competitive advantage for innovation and growth and should strive to establish diverse teams. It also helps when leaders are the ones encouraging a culture of respectful debate. Encourage all members of a group to share their ideas, take the perspective of others, confirm their commitment to resolving the conflict for mutual benefit and integrate diverse perspectives to create new solutions.. 
  2. Develop shared norms that promote contribution from all team members. Don’t let any person or subgroup dominate the discussion. For example, a ‘no-interruption’ rule prevents some voices dominating others. Also, look for signs that someone might have something to add but are holding back and intentionally invite the contributions of all team members. Pay particular attention to outlying information. Confirmation bias and affinity bias can lead employees to discount the views of minority members – counter this by deliberately acknowledging minority input to send a message to the group that all views are valued. 
  3. Recognise and reward contributions from all members. Acknowledge and reward team members for speaking up (e.g. offering a new idea, admitting an error, asking a question). This helps you highlight the competencies of your colleagues and increase the salience of each employee’s value by highlighting the unique contributions each individual brings to the group. 
  4. Participative management. Status diversity refers to differences related to professional rank. When status diversity is present, power differentials skew contributions towards members with higher status. Dismantling perceptions of hierarchy improves the willingness of direct reports to share their ideas. Voice your willingness to be challenged on your ideas by more junior staff across the business and reward those who challenge you.
  5. Model humility and courage. Acknowledge when you have made a mistake and be willing to admit you don’t have all the answers. Acknowledging gaps in your knowledge creates room for others to speak up to fill the gap and also to own and share learnings from their own mistakes.
  6. Promote the development of friendships. Trust has two components: affective-based trust and cognitive-based trust. Social activities that provide opportunities for non-work interaction support the development of affective-based trust and intragroup friendships as do work schedules that allow time for non-task based interactions on the job. Open office designs that increase the likelihood of water-cooler style interactions are also helpful. When team members are geographically dispersed, psychological safety can be enhanced through regular site visits, where possible.


For more tips, visit Felicity’s Include-Empower blog

Joy Adan

Joy is RG's book-hoarding, food-loving Content Journalist who combines her experience in communications and change management with storytelling and digital media to help leaders connect with their people and strengthen their company culture. When she isn’t writing about business, HR or leadership, she’s chasing her two sons at the playground or writing quotes and song lyrics with a paintbrush or calligraphy pen.

Content Journalist

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