Five questions to help you speak up, listen up and facilitate agility, innovation and ethical working
HR conferences around the world are crammed to the brim with the new lexicon of ‘agility’, ‘disruption’ and ‘digital’. These mix nicely in with the more familiar, yet as popular as ever, ‘motivation’ and ‘engagement’. As leaders seek advice about how to transition to new ways of working in response to the breakneck march of technology and the rise of business ecosystems, HR practitioners are scrambling to find pragmatic solutions to offer.
Here’s one way of approaching this rather perplexing challenge:
You and I will make choices about what to say today, and what to stay silent about. We will also choose whom to listen to and whose opinion to discount. Individually, and then collectively, we form ‘conversational habits’. These end up having huge consequences on us, our colleagues and beyond.
If you and others are afraid to speak up and think that ideas are likely to be met with apathy or even derision, then your road to being agile and innovative could be a long one
Does your organisation have habits whereby people can and do stick up their hand and challenge the way things are done? If employees habitually offer ideas – and know those ideas will be heard - then you are more likely to be agile and innovative.
However, if you and others are afraid to speak up and think that ideas are likely to be met with apathy or even derision, then your road to being agile and innovative could be a long one.
For the past five years my co-researcher, John Higgins, and myself have been exploring speaking up – and listening up. We published our findings recently in a book with FT Publishing called Speak Up; Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard. In this article we suggest five questions, which we call the TRUTH framework, which help individuals, teams and organisations unpick their conversational habits and develop new ones which facilitate agility and innovation (and, even more importantly, ethical working).
The TRUTH framework details five of the most common issues encountered in speaking up. And because there is no point in asking/training/mandating your employees to speak up if no one is then going to listen, the framework also describes the five issues encountered in listening up. Here it is:
1. How much do you Trust the value of your opinion and the opinion of others?
Ever had an idea, but before you voiced it, the ‘imposter voice’ or the ‘inner critic’ interrupts and tells you that it’s probably silly / you’ve probably got it wrong / best not? Many of us need to recognise this voice and dial it down. We also need to encourage others that their opinion is worth voicing – and that takes real skill.
2. What are the Risks involved when you speak up or others speak up to you?
The two biggest fears that stop ideas and challenges being voiced is the fear of being perceived negatively and the fear of upsetting the other person. Stories of previous bad experiences that we’ve had when we’ve spoken up haunt us. Whilst we need to be careful not to catastrophise if we are thinking through risks, a crucial responsibility for us all is responding well when people do speak up. We also need to recognise that we are very likely to underestimate how scary it might be for others to speak up to us (we persist in thinking we are ‘approachable’ but our titles may make us intimidating).
3. Do you Understand the politics at play that affect what gets said to whom?
Politics is a fact of life in organisations because we constantly negotiate power and differences in agendas. Rather than relegate this to a ‘dirty’ subject, if we are to speak up well and enable others to, we must understand more clearly who is perceived to have power and what personal and organisational agendas exist which encourage and discourage speaking up.
4. Are you aware of the Titles and labels others attach to you and you attach to others - and how that shapes what you say and what you hear?
When we communicate with others, we label ourselves and them – gender, age, appearance, ethnicity, job title and countless others. These labels convey differing levels of status and authority depending on the context. So the label ‘HR’ for example may, in some contexts, convey status and the right to speak up and at other times it may feel lower status (with the consequent effect on what gets said and heard). If we wish different things to be said and heard in our organisations, then we need to ask ourselves how power is constructed – and seek to alter that so that different people feel able to say different things.
5. Do you know How to choose the right words at the right time in the right place to speak up effectively and enable others to speak up to you?
To speak up and listen up well we need to know:
● Whom to speak to and whose voices we aren’t currently hearing
● Why we need to say something or hear different things
● What words and body language to use to speak up, or encourage others to
● Where to say something and the environments in which others feel more able to speak up
● When to speak up so we will be heard and when to invite others to.
If you have something important to say, rehearse it! Find a friend, coach or mentor to run it past and see if you have allies so that you aren’t a lone voice. If you want to listen up – remember you’re going to have to work hard to help others to speak up. Seek feedback to understand how approachable you really are (not just how you think you are).
A change of culture towards agility and innovation cannot and will not happen unless conversational habits change. If you can help different people to speak up in different ways – if they are invited and heard more effectively – then your organisation might just become more prepared to thrive in this unpredictable world.
Megan Reitz, pictured, is professor at Hult International Business School and co-author of Speak Up
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