‘Speaking Up’ is constantly in the news these days. Whether it relates to misconduct concerns in institutions as diverse as Lloyds of London, Volkswagen, Oxfam and the BBC, or global movements such as #MeToo and climate change, the importance of creating cultures where alternative voices can be heard is vital. The fact that the FCA (1) have imposed nearly £320m in fines in the Banking sector in the first six months of 2019 – outstripping the combined total for the past three years- highlights how much scrutiny is now being placed on organisations. But speaking up is not just about raising concerns; innovation and growth similarly requires everyone to share their ideas. As Jonathan Davidson of the FCA recently stated, ‘fear is fast thinking, but inspiration requires slow thinking’ (2). Echoing Amy Edmundson’s seminal work (3) it is clear organisations need to create psychologically safe cultures if they want to tackle misconduct and remain competitive and innovative.
But research suggests businesses are currently failing in their quests to create these cultures. 34% of people are hesitant to challenge ways of working, 19% to offer new ideas and 18% to report malpractice (4). Similarly, exclusive research by our sister brand WhartonBC in conjunction with everywoman found over 60% in the Insurance and Risk sectors do not feel senior leaders make a genuine effort to listen to junior employees (5).
So what can be done? In this short blog I outline seven steps that organisations can take to begin the process of enabling a genuine speak, and listen up, culture to grow.
1) Make navigation simple
Too many organisations think establishing whistleblowing hotlines and ‘open door policies’ is sufficient as a response to speak up failures. It’s not. But you do need these foundations in place first. A recent Banking Standards Board (BSB) survey (6) found only 63% of those who wished to raise a concern at work felt able to, and a lack of clarity around navigation and where to go was one of the main barriers for people. Therefore ensure you have these systems and processes in place, that they are fit for purpose and that your people know how to use them. Just make sure you don’t stop there.
2) Understand the organisational ‘power truth’
The idea that organisations can ever be completely flat and hierarchy free is an organisational myth; as social beings, power dynamics are at play in every interaction we have (7). Fear is the main reason people do not speak up – fear of repercussions, of reputational impact and of upsetting others (5, 7). So the impact of power needs to be acknowledged before any true cultural change can take place. Using ‘mirrors’ such as John Higgins’ Speak Up Index, the BSB Survey or conducting a confidential appreciative inquiry with your people can help you understand the root causes you really need to tackle.
3) Create leaders who ‘Listen Up’
Leadership behaviours account for 70% of what drives culture (8). Start by addressing your leadership capabilities; but specifically focus on creating leaders who ‘listen up’ because how a leader responds to a team member raising a concern or idea is more critical than leaders themselves ‘speaking up’. Less than half of individuals who raised concerns in the BSB survey felt listened to (6) and in the recent Lloyds of London misconduct survey only 41% who raised issues felt they were taken seriously (9). There is also a seniority bias at play; the more senior we are the more we, inaccurately, believe we are being told everything that we need to know (7). Therefore it is important to develop leaders ability to hear what is being said and not said, and to be continually curious about the reality of their organisation.
4) Reward and recognise ‘failure’
As Sriracha Honda states ‘Success is 99% failure’. But this does not come easily. Our research found that 64% of respondents report that their senior leaders are not willing to be public about failure (5). It is extremely powerful when individuals admit they have failed, learnt and are continuing to try; this honesty and transparency helps create a psychologically safe culture for others to try, and potentially fail. Contrast this to findings that over ¾ of whistleblowers experience retaliation and only 3% felt their employer was very supportive (10). So look for opportunities for your organisation to publicise mistakes and encourage your leaders to be open when things have not worked.
5) Recruit for diversity of thought
If the definition of a speak and listen up culture is one where alternative voices are heard, then you need to make sure they are in the organisation in the first place. Research consistently proves the business case for having diverse teams (11) and there are many methods that can be deployed to increase inclusivity, including bias neutral recruitment, sourcing from less traditional pools and unconscious bias training. Neurodiversity is also an emerging dimension for leading edge organisations to consider. But it is also important you focus on ensuring these alternative voices are heard once they arrive- there is no point giving them a seat at the table and not listening to what they say (12).
6) Focus on the moments that matter
Undertaking cultural change can be overwhelming so focus on just a few ‘moments that matter’ where the behaviours you want to encourage will have most impact. For example, how a leader responds to an employee speaking up will set the tone for whether that individual ever decides to speak up again. Similar ’moments’ might be what happens when someone makes a mistake, how whistle-blowers are treated or onboarding of new recruits. Once you have identified the key moments agree with your people what ‘good’ would look like in this scenario, and develop competence through training, discussion, role playing and setting clear behavioural and conduct frameworks
7) Learn from others
Finally take the time to learn from other organisations. There is a wealth of good practice and bad practice you can quickly learn from. At the 2019 Cityweek conference, State Street shared how a shift from focusing on speaking up to developing leaders to listen (13), fundamentally shifted their ability to create a speak-up culture. We recently hosted a business breakfast on this topic which enabled attendees to share top tips, such as the need to learn from Insurance and Fintech organisations who have a fundamentally different cultural ethos around speaking up and innovation.
The power of movements like #MeToo has shown what can happen when speaking up is enabled. Just applying one or two of the steps above can start you on the journey.
Wharton Ignite have experience and expertise at helping organisations across these seven steps – contact Sarah Jepson-Jones, Natalie Wharton or another of the Wharton Ignite team if you would like to hear more about our offerings in this space.
(2) Jonathon Davidson, Keynote address, 5th Annual Culture and Conduct Forum for the Financial Services Industry, 2019
(3) Amy Edmundson (1999), Psychological Safety
(4) Speaking Truth to Power at Work, Reitz, M, Nilson, V, Day, E and Higgins, J (2019) Hult Research
(5) Inclusion and Innovation; Accelerating Change in Insurance (2019), Wharton Business Consulting Insight report
(6) Alison Cottrell, Panel session ‘Creating cultures that support speaking up and listening up’, 5th Annual Culture and Conduct Forum for the Financial Services Industry, 2019
(7) Speak Up: Say What needs to be said and hear what needs to be hear’ M Reitz & J Higgins, 2019, FT Publishing
(8) Human Capital Trends, 2016 Deloitte
(10)‘Whistleblowing, The Personal Cost of Doing the Right Thing and the Cost to Society of Ignoring it’, 2019 All Party Parliamentary Group Whistleblowing
(11) Why Diversity Matters, 2015 McKinsey
(12) Gender balance; Is your organisation closing the gaps’; Wharton Business Consulting blog 2019
(13) Kim Newell, Panel session ‘Transforming Culture in Financial Services’, Cityweek 2019
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