Creating a Speak-up Culture


In her speech and interaction with Des Dearlove, Megan Reitz emphasizes the importance of bringing difficult conversations to the table which will be necessary as we reimagine the future.

We have something called conversational habits. The conversational habits are when we get stuck into patterns around what gets said and what doesn’t, and what gets heard and what doesn’t, whether it is at work, at home or in the community. We as individuals, our teams and our organizations have habits about what we say and don’t say and who we listen to and who we don’t, and they have huge consequences.

Habits mean that people can stick their hands and offer ideas and come up with suggestions. That can become a habit. Equally, habits form when it’s not okay to say something. This has happened to a number of organizations. It has been seen with healthcare workers trying to speak up around safety issues but not being able to, and habits like these can cost lives. Also, there are macro patterns of stuckness in our conversation around social inequality, around environmental disasters, and whether we speak up about those things or stay silent and have devastating consequences.

During this crisis, we are living in unsustainable ways, the levels of social inequality and treatment of the environment are unsustainable. There is every chance that we will face another crisis. There is also a high probability of us being in a place of uncertainty. There is no going back to normal but there is a distinct risk that we might sleepwalk back into rather disastrous conversational habits.

Based on a research with organizational leaders on conversational habits, there are three conversational habits that have been found to work. We need to hardwire these into conversations now so that they are there when needed in the future. The first is around agility in our conversations, which means inviting different perspectives, moving decisively but thoughtfully, still pausing for thought while making decisions, and learning to have conversations that are around learning through mistakes and successes. The second is compassion. In order to hardwire compassion in, we need to seek and really hear other people’s experiences and then act with those experiences in mind. The third thing is, we need to have conversations that are guided by purpose and values. It requires asking and engaging with things that matter. There are some organizations that have made decisions quickly according to what matters and they have stuck to what matters, but then there are organizations that, when it comes to the crisis, have made decisions that are very different from the purpose and values they have stated.

In order to hardwire agility, compassion, and purpose into our conversations, we need to be able to say what needs to be said, to hear what needs to be heard, and we need the capacity for people to speak up. For this, we need to spot the justification discourse. It is those conversations we have when we are busy justifying why we can act in ways that are against that purpose and values. We justify by saying it makes sense at the time. There are several organizations that are attempting to generate and develop a speak-up culture, but one key mistake happening is that they tend to try and fix the individual rather than the system. Leadership teams want employees to be braver and assertive, to come up with ideas, and point out the problems, but it does not happen. Employees choose to stay silent because they have seen people lose their jobs in the past for speaking up. The problem is in the system, not the individuals.

One of the key points in the research is that we do need people to have the courage to speak up give them the resources that they need to do that really well, but if that is the sole focus in the organization, it is a waste of money and resources unless the focus is also on the system that they’re in. It often comes down to the wisdom of those in leadership positions to listen. Speaking up is relational and it happens within a system. Hence, when we’re talking about system-wide interventions, a lot of things affect speaking up and listening up in the system, but in a nutshell, it is how we socially construct power, how we come to understand our own and others’ power, status, and authority. This crisis has revealed many organizations’ (and society’s) power culture and the real differences between status and authority, and whose voice gets heard and whose voice gets silenced. 

Although all of this depends on power and how we construct it, we tend to disappear power out of conversations. The ways we disappear power has implications on conversations. In a survey of about 5,500 people globally across sectors, people were asked what happens when they speak up with a problem and when they speak up with an idea in their organization. The results were that 20% of junior employees responded that speaking up with a problem gets you rewarded or at least the response is positive, and 80% responded that it wasn’t the case. Nearly half of respondents thought they’ll be ignored if they speak up with a problem. When it came to speaking up with ideas, 29% of junior employees though they will be rewarded while 44% thought they’ll be ignored. The experience of senior employees is slightly more positive. 28% responded it would be likely rewarded and 26% responded they would be likely ignored. Again, there are slightly more positive experiences of the consequences of speaking up with ideas, with 43% responding they would be likely responded while 24% thought they would be likely ignored. There is quite a significant difference in the expectations around being ignored between junior and senior employees. The research shows that the more senior you are, the more optimistic you are that others are speaking up to you when they are not.

It can be said that senior leaders are quite optimistic and slightly deluded. It is almost inevitable because leaders are in a bubble for three key reasons. One is the superiority illusion and it is a problem shared by all. People tend to think they are good at speaking up and listening, and definitely better than their colleagues. Superiority illusion is a problem because it deludes one into thinking that everybody else needs to change rather than the self. The second is advantage blindness. People in powerful positions often have titles and labels that in that context, convey power and status. For example, a person holding the title of chief executive, and having the labels of male, white, British, Oxford, and in his 50s, conveys status. It is very difficult for people holding those titles and labels to understand the experience of people that don’t have those labels. The third reason is that senior leaders are very unlikely to be told truthful feedback.

Therefore, our system of power needs to work hard in order to hear people speak. There are three particular traps that leaders fall into. One is that they intimidate people, which ties to why they don’t get truthful feedback. Senior leaders’ titles and labels intimate people, so they have to remember that. Senior leaders need to put themselves in the shoes of others and really empathize with how others feel when they are inviting people to speak up. The second trap arises from the list leaders maintain of people they listen to, seek opinions from, and those that they don’t. The list is not the issue as it is inevitable but rather, not questioning the list of people whose opinion counts is. It is useful to think how similar or different those people on the list are from yourself, and how different are the collection of people who are not on the list, whose voices are not on that list. The third trap is sending ‘shut up’ rather than ‘speak up’ signals. Since the leader is the one in the spotlight, their facial expression and body language are taken as signals by people to choose whether to speak up or not. Leaders have to be particularly aware of what signals they are unintentionally sending out. 

These traps mean that leaders are disappearing power. In the moment, leaders forget how power, status, and authority enable speech and close it down. There are many things that can be done about it, and one of those is to be mindful. Mindfulness is the capacity to focus our attention with curiosity and openness on present moment experiences of our thoughts, feelings and sensations, but also our present moment experiences of relationship in the system. Mindfulness enables us to spot habits when they are playing out, so when we are doing what we always do as though on autopilot, mindfulness allows us the capacity to spot what is going on. Spotting those habits in the moment opens up the space to choose responses. So, anything that involves habits and disrupting habits has to call on a level of mindfulness, and the levels of mindfulness can be practiced. 

In this crisis, individuals, teams and organizations more than ever face a critical moment of choice. We cannot and will not reimagine the future unless we are aware of the choices that we face. We need to face into those choices and demand others do too, with curiosity and compassion. Hence, we need to speak up and listen up, and do that in very different ways if we are to reimagine the future.

The conversations we are having today hold the seeds of our future. We have to change who says what and who gets heard. In doing that, we will face inconvenient choices. Bringing up issues of power and difference, environment, social inequality, etc. is not easy, but we cannot reimagine the future unless those things arrive on the table and we genuinely look at the kind of choices that we face, unless we spot the justifications when we veer off. We have to face these inconvenient choices and we have to face them now to reimagine our future. If anything, this crisis has enabled us to see that clearly and to hold on and grab that opportunity.

Des Dearlove in Conversation with Megan Reitz

Des Dearlove: There have been examples of employees speaking up over social media for things that they believe in during the crisis. Is this a trend you see continuing and how should leaders respond?

Megan Ritz: We have been seeing a growing trend of employees speaking up even before the crisis. The Google walkouts, Wayfair, and Cafe Pacific were examples where employees have spoken up using social media. We have seen this trend further growing in the current crisis, particularly in healthcare workers who have been speaking up around safety issues and feeling like they face real risks in doing that. In the U.K., we got stories of employees speaking up on social media about being asked to work whilst furloughed as well. 

This year is on employee activism, which is an interesting phrase. Essentially, it is looking at employees speaking about social and political issues that they feel their organization should take a stand on. In the past, we used to have an assumption that, firstly, employees would leave their political and social thoughts at the door when they arrive at work, and secondly, organizations are not political entities. Both of those assumptions are being challenged. One trend happening now is that many leaders and leadership teams are speaking out publicly around what they and their organizations stand for, their purpose and their values to stakeholders as well as shareholders. 

As they do that more and more, employees are more and more willing to judge them on that by exposing the contradictions between their leaders’ statements and their own experience at the organization. We know that generally employees try and speak up internally if they are uncomfortable, but if they feel that they are not heard or not engaged with or respected seriously, then they will often reach out and speak up more widely. Younger talented employees are particularly feeling free to speak up in this way, and these are employees that leaders and organizations really want to keep. This trend is therefore going to keep going.

Des Dearlove: How does the speaking up and especially the listening up apply in a remote working situation? 

Megan Ritz: It is very difficult to generalize. I have interviewed individuals that are far more comfortable in speaking up on Zoom platforms than they are in a face-to-face meeting and far more able to sit and read and choose how they respond, and similarly, there are other people I have interviewed that feel a bit at sea in Zoom. But if you’re the powerful individual in that group, there are very important ways of working on how you invite people to speak and ensure that diverse voices are heard in that meeting. As a leader, you need to ask yourself whose voices are you hearing and how do you need to work to enable people to speak up with their ideas, but also with their challenges right now.

Des Dearlove: How do you send the message to new employees and the next generation that you really do want them to speak up? 

Megan Ritz: Firstly, give them lots of different opportunities in forums to do that, because we are all different. Some people need different ways to access and speak up, to think about it differently. A really important thing to remember is that when you ask people to speak up, your response to when they speak up is absolutely fundamental. They might now speak up skillfully but have to respond in a way that doesn’t silence them. You really need to notice those small moments where stories are made, stories around what happens when we speak around here are made in your responses, so show that you really focus on those responses.

Des Dearlove: When it comes to speaking up, what does the research show about gender differences? 

Megan Ritz: Speaking up is gendered, and so is listening up. In our research, women are more likely to perceive negative consequences of speaking up and so they are less confident in speaking up. If you look at the last few centuries, you can figure out why women have generally learnt that you do face negative consequences when you speak up. This is a deeply ingrained habit that we are attempting to shift, and there are slow movements and changes but still plenty to do. Our research also shows that women are more likely to value the opinion of others. So, net valuing, listening up and seeking difference is also gendered, as is speaking up. For any organization that wants people to speak up, one piece of advice for them is to look at gender inequality.

Des Dearlove: What does the research have to say about cultural differences?

Megan Ritz: Cultural differences are enormously important in examining speaking up and listening up patterns and habits and particularly how you start to disrupt them. We’re actually researching that in the survey right now and examining differences across different nationalities. To emphasize, there are dramatically different assumptions around whether it is okay to speak up, particularly whether it is okay to speak up to challenge individuals that might be perceived as powerful. That differs markedly across the world, across different cultures. It does differ across different organizations, different departments, different teams, so culture, in that sense, is something that we have to consider and again, have to try and find ways to have conversations about. Again, when we’re looking at disrupting habits of conversation along with looking at gender, we would also examine cultural differences in assumptions around speaking up and listening up, and look at the consequences of those.

Des Dearlove: Can you give us an example of a leader that you have perhaps been working with through the crisis who has been applying some of these practices well?

Megan Ritz: One leader that I have worked with really comes to mind. His name is John Waterman and he is the chief executive of a British construction company called Willmott Dixon. It was from his conversations that I had the idea of hardwiring in conversational habits. John and his organization is an example of a company that has been hardwiring in habits that have ended up being incredibly valuable. For years, John has focused on a mantra, which is, focus on how results are made rather than results themselves. His focus and attention has very much been on the relationship, on employees, and the working environment. 

When the crisis hit, they still had to make some really tough decisions, but it was all with that purpose, value and focus still very much foregrounded. Another important thing that John does as a leader is that he has access to voices of difference. Amongst his advisors, he has some people that have very different points of view, even the experts in history and philosophy and various other people, that can shake his thinking. They particularly enabled him to think quickly about the effects of his decisions he is making now on the future. So sticking to values and listening to his advisors were things that he did really well. 

Another thing that is interesting from a mindfulness perspective is that he enabled his team so that they were able to quickly realize that previous plans and targets were no longer possible. In other words, when they found themselves in a new environment, they were able to recognize that they need to let go of what they were really attached to, in order to fully embrace and be in creatively this new world.

Des Dearlove: Would you like to add anything else before we close?

Megan Ritz: To sum up, conversational habits matter. They have consequences. Very often, we are not aware of our habits. We need these conversational habits, preferably to be agile, compassionate, and guided by purpose. The problem is that when we try and shift our habits, we very often focus on them out there when we need to focus on ourselves and the system within which people speak up. Almost inevitably, when we are in senior roles and are trying to help people speak up, we are in a bubble and we disappear power. So, our ability to be mindful of power and status, which is the foundation for when people speak up or stay quiet, is incredibly important. To reiterate, the conversations that you have today in your teams over the next few weeks are your future. If the habits in your conversations now are not leading to you reimagining the future in the way that we need to, you are not going to disrupt them. That will probably mean facing inconvenient choices around how we need to consider our actions together and what we are here for. Again, this needs to happen now, not over there in the future. 

Previous Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars and Transform Industries
Next Outthink the Future