Speak out or shut up?

What would you do when there is something going on in your organisation that leaves a bad taste in your mouth? Do you speak out, even though it could put your job and reputation at risk? By getting your strategy right, you are more likely to get the outcome you want – and come out unscathed.

Speaking up and speaking out are encouraged in society, but can be punished in a business setting. Although some companies have made their fortunes through disruption and innovation, employees in these same companies may not be encouraged to challenge problematic behaviours.

Google employees’ recent walkout over poorly handled sexual harassment allegations is a rare example of employee activism in the tech sector. It resulted from poor communication from leaders about payouts to men accused of harassing women in the organisation.

Cost of communication

Effective communication should be a focus for any company. However, for individuals there’s always a cost-benefit analysis when what you want to communicate goes against the company’s culture or pits you against established power structures of individuals, teams or departments.

In a recent study by Dr Megan Reitz and John Higgins, Being Silenced and Silencing Others, the anatomy of speaking out was dissected and the risks of communication failure were explored.

The phrase ‘Speaking truth to power’, possibly coined by civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, is a good example of how having the courage of your convictions can change the world, but may also make your own life hell. Rustin, a powerful strategist, helped drive many campaigns for fairness and equality. However, his own sexuality − made public because he was charged for having sex with a man in public − was criticised by some of those he fought alongside as they believed it made him less effective. His opponents attacked him as a pervert and an immoral influence, and his Communist Party affiliations in the early 1940s led to him being investigated by the FBI.

Fear of discrimination

Rustin said: “To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true.” But many of us might see Rustin’s life as a perfect example of the inherent risks of speaking out. We know that whistleblowers often experience discriminatory responses to their actions, which can include being silenced, being dismissed from their jobs, and having their reputations and experiences cast into doubt. So why would anybody take this step?

As the study points out, we can find ourselves in a position where either choice is extremely difficult. When Reitz asked a whistleblower if he would do it again, given the severity of the consequences he’d experienced, “he replied quickly: ‘Absolutely not!’ Then, wracked with distress, he said: ‘But how could I not have?’” Indeed − how do we live with ourselves if we don’t take the actions we believe to be right?

To get the outcome we desire, we need to work out:

  • How to express our concerns
  • When to speak
  • How to approach difficult topics with a focus on building agreement rather than driving dissent

How to speak out

Sometimes knowing how to speak out is just as important as any other part of the process. Jocelyn Mangan, COO at Snagajob, points out: “You can’t change what you don’t watch. Without effort, we are all susceptible to unconscious bias.” While she’s talking specifically about promoting the role of women in teams and in bettering the ratio of women to men at the highest levels, her point is valid for all areas of concern.

At Broadly Speaking, we’ve found that a focus on numbers, metrics and data can make the message more palatable. Use this information to lay out your case, showing that your organisation can do better. Nobody wants to hear bad news, but framing the message as a potential benefit can be a successful way to broach a tough topic.

When to be bold

There’s a point in every project when a business needs to either ‘fish or cut bait’. Unfortunately, many organisations pass this point before having any real debate that would allow them to decide whether it’s time to push forward or abandon a project entirely.

Some businesses commit to ‘killing sprees’, where they simply jettison unsuccessful projects. One example is Google Moderator, which was used by former US President Barack Obama’s team to answer public questions. It brought in around a million votes for Obama and generated 10,000 questions. Even so, Google dumped the project in 2015, deeming it a failure.

Picking the right moment to put forward a dissenting point of view could be vital to be seen as prudent, rather than a trouble-making contributor.

Presenting the problem

Peace in the Middle East is still a dream, but the closest we’ve come to it is the Oslo Agreement of 1993, when Israel and Palestine agreed on a wide range of subjects. The Norwegian negotiators reversed the normal process. Instead of beginning with small problems they hoped to resolve easily, they went straight into major stakes debate, talking about disarmament and reparations. These were the issues that really interested both parties and, as a result, momentum rapidly built towards agreement.

When discussing a contentious business issue, lay out the stakes in an attractive fashion. “By deciding today if our current practice is discriminatory, we can determine our Codes of Conduct for the next five years, and streamline our training, hiring and public relations processes in line with our decision.” That presents more engaging stakes than: “We need to decide if we’re failing to comply with government legislation, which could have a big impact on our reputation and brand”? It’s the same premise, just with different stakes presented.

Of course it’s challenging to speak boldly, but taking a considered approach, choosing the right moment and selecting attractive stakes to open the debate can reduce the challenge and increase your chances of success.

Broadly Speaking is a leadership and management consultancy that helps organisations improve communication between teams, leaders and managers. Contact us if we can help your organisation thrive on hello@broadlyspeaking.ie