Wednesday, March 22, 2020

Thoughts on Speaking Out

For leaders at every level, no news is decidedly bad news. They depend on others to let them know the reality of what's going on, preferably in good time to take appropriate action. If subordinates are uneasy about the consequences of saying what they know, the chances of being badly surprised by events increases dramatically.

For society as well, fear of speaking openly about the realities of life simply means people look away, rather than confronting problems. We're all far too prone to politically-correct notions. Maybe we don't want others to see us as insensitive or boorish. Maybe we don't have enough self-confidence to tell it as it is, if we fear instant disapproval. Whatever the reason, there's a huge difference between what's correct and what's politically correct. If prejudice and discrimination are unacceptable actions, as they are, that shouldn't mean it's also unacceptable to talk openly about the human fears and emotions that cause them. For the politically correct, differences—even real ones—are too scary to mention. Acknowledging a difference may lead to yet another source of discrimination.

As Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and Penn State professor James Detert explain in a paper called "Latent Voice Episodes: The Situation-Specific Nature of Speaking Up at Work ," people are often unwilling to say what they think or what they see. What the professors call "latent voice episodes"—moments in which an individual employee has something to say and considers whether or not to say it—depend partly on the individual's character (is he or she naturally outspoken?), but even more on situational factors.

Their findings suggest our current economic and social situation isn't conducive to honesty. People fear for their jobs and careers. In a partisan, divided society, speaking out honestly can get you into trouble. The professors sum it up like this:
…most of us depend on hierarchical organizations and their agents (i.e., bosses) to meet many of our basic needs for economic support and human relationships. Thus, fear of offending those above us is both natural and widespread. One way we can get in trouble with those above us is to speak up in ways perceived as challenging of authority or critical of cherished programs. Given the exaggerated and real reasons to fear offending authorities, it isn't surprising that people clam up when the signals seem unfavorable.
Political correctness coupled with economic uneasiness quickly leads to an atmosphere of fear: fear of disapproval or, worse, fear of litigation. For many organizations, the driving force towards diversity has less to do with openly acknowledging the benefits of accepting people as they are—wildly diverse by nature—and much more about avoiding potential legal problems. Add to this the tendency of autocrats the world over to punish anyone who brings them bad news and you have the perfect recipe for so much ostrich-like behavior.

The professors have a realistic view of the organizational world:
Despite some well-intentioned efforts, we haven't yet worked with an organization that has fully transformed itself from one of fear to one in which most employees would rate the organization as open or conducive to speaking up…It's worth remembering that this is not about being "nice" or creating a "nice" workplace. In fact, those organizations where voice is more natural and welcome can be pretty tough places in the sense that people are direct! Not all news is good news! But people also have learned to expect the good and the bad, and know how to process it…Managers need to hear from the people in the organization who are closest to the work, closest to the customers—that is, from those who are in the best position to recognize problems and have new ideas.
Slow Leadership is firmly committed to discovering and acting on reality—not false views of the world dreamed up to make life seem better, or more politically and ideologically acceptable, than it is. Haste is a bitter enemy of honesty. If you're under pressure, why add to that pressure by speaking out, especially if you think it may add an angry boss to all your other problems? A risk, even an imaginary one, of legal trouble is enough to shut many mouths.

Only where leaders take enough time to create an atmosphere of trust will they get the truth they need to make sound decisions. Time is the key factor is replacing the stupidities of political correctness with an honest commitment to facing the truth, however unpalatable. You need time to listen, time to explore, time to understand, time to consider and accept. In our foolish haste to get to the next imagined goal, we ignore—or crush—the quiet voices telling us the world isn't as we want it to be. Today's organizations are as riddled with fear as any Victorian sweatshop. And that fear may blind you to reality as surely as faulty military intelligence creates bad wars.

I'll let the professors have the last word:
Perhaps most surprising to us has been the degree to which fear appears to be a feature of modern work life. Whenever we talk with others about this work, such as on airplanes with strangers, we get a similar response—"Oh yeah, I can relate to wanting to speak up but biting my tongue." It's really a shame how much apparently untapped knowledge there is out there and how much pain and frustration results from this silence. That, too, has been somewhat surprising—that people are genuinely hurt and frustrated about their silence. This suggests that employees aren't failing to provide ideas or input because they've "checked out" and just don't care, but because of fear.

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Anonymous said...

I can't believe this article was posted today! Thank-you for this, because I believe an organization that you respect has the right to know the honest status of things and the concerns and fears of its employees. Unfortunately, I was fired this Monday after speaking out (I believe I was pretty professional in my expression - maybe a little too passionate) about my concerns and fears around a new program. The reason for firing me was that I do not fit into the new direction of the company! I had worked for this company for over 4 years, have been promoted twice, and received excellent reviews all 4 years. I am afraid in the long run, I helped perpetuate the fear; but I am personally glad I spoke up and will do it again. Maybe I will pick my timing and wording more carefully next time, though. Perhaps the professors can give some tips on speaking out and not getting fired?

10:31 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Sorry to hear you got fired, but any organization that acts like that is not one you want to be working for.

Timing and wording? Well, being passionate shouldn't be a corporate crime—unless accompanied by rudeness. I suspect you simply touched a raw nerve. What you said spoke to what the bosses are afraid might happen. Rather than deal with that, they prefer to bury it—and you—and hope it will go away.

If you were simply wrong, they should have been able to show you how and why. Only irrational emotion makes an organization fire a good employee who has an honest viewpoint that raises questions; that irrational emotion being fear, likely coupled with egotism and foolish pride.

Best of luck with your job search. Someone, somewhere, deserves a great employee like you—much more than your last employer did.

1:59 PM  

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