How often have you heard one of your leaders say the words “speak up”?
Or perhaps, how many times have you said them yourself?
I know that I’ve been in a few situations myself when I felt compelled to express those words. And I’ve also heard them being spoken to me a few times.
When we lead with the best intentions (I’ll come back to that), we would like to be part of (or leading) a culture where people feel comfortable saying what they think.
But it’s not that simple.
People won’t speak up just because their leader asks them to do so.
Especially young and inexperienced leaders make this judgment error.
I know I did.
I was relatively young when I started leading a team of people led by highly directive managers before me.
“My way or the highway” type of managers.
“I don’t pay you to think but to execute” type of managers.
Then I stepped in the door. A young leader, full of ambition, from a foreign country known by its culture of tolerance, a little wet behind the ears.
But nobody spoke up. And nobody had any intention of doing so. Uncomfortable, afraid of the consequences when they would be honest.
They didn’t trust me.
I was leading with the best intentions, but the impact was zero. I literally had to spell everything out how I wanted to see it.
Not as the result of an effective dialogue or brainstorming.
Not because they didn’t know the solutions. They knew them better than I did.
But because I was the boss, and that’s the person who says what needs to be done.
After several months of working together, things started to change. I gained their trust and proved to them I was serious about being inclusive.
During those months where I listened carefully to their ideas and followed them often. Months of demonstrating there were no consequences for speaking up or making honest mistakes.
Things slowly started to be the way I wanted to see them.
Because my team saw that my intentions were sincere, and I had their best interest in mind.
“Speak up” doesn’t work when people don’t feel safe.
“Speak up” doesn’t work when people don’t know you and don’t know if they can trust you.”
“Speak up” doesn’t work if you’re known to be a lousy listener who doesn’t take feedback and who has fired people before for speaking up.
When you tell people to speak up, and nobody does, it means (1) you don’t have an inclusive culture in your company, and (2) you lack the self-awareness to understand that culture and your role in it.
Two weeks ago a media mogul (John de Mol) in the Netherlands publicly asked the women in his company to speak up against inappropriate behavior.
He just didn’t get why that would not happen.
He implicitly blamed these women for not speaking up.
A group of female employees of this company reacted and spoke up by putting full-page advertising in one of the leading Dutch newspapers.
Dear John, women are not the source of the problem.
The next day, John met a few women in his company and, probably for the first time, made an effort to listen to them.
From his reaction, it looks like he started to understand that people didn’t speak up because of the type of leader he was and the culture he had created.
When people don’t feel safe speaking up, they won’t.
No matter how many times you ask them to do so.
You first need to look in the mirror and demonstrate that your intentions are sincere. Repeatedly and over a more extended period.
In my next weekly insight, I’ll share a story from the other side—when I was working for a highly charismatic and slightly narcissistic leader.
Your turn: when were you facing a situation you were not comfortable voicing your opinion?
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