Blog: Speaking up is the ultimate act of loyalty

Philippa Foster Back, CBE

On Whistleblower Appreciation Day, there may be a focus on the big news stories, as we are grateful to those who have brought to the public attention issues of public safety, political corruption and corporate malfeasance, in the private, public and third sector.

But here at the IBE we would also like to spare a moment to appreciate those who may not make the headlines, but nevertheless, make an important contribution to the openness and integrity of their organisation’s culture, by raising their concerns about something which is troubling them.

Speaking Up should not be a life changing or career limiting event; we’re working towards it being something which occurs in the course of working life, as business as usual. Being able to raise concerns should be a natural part of our conversations with managers, with teams, with each other.  

But as human beings, it’s not that simple. We are complex and contrary creatures. Speaking Up feels personal, because it goes to the very heart of our social interactions with each other.

We cannot underestimate the emotions involved in speaking up, which is why we have devised the IBE Speak Up Toolkit. It acknowledges the complex emotions one might feel when faced with an ethical concern, and offers practical suggestions to help employees prepare in raising it, to minimise the fear of the unknown.

But an app cannot solely be the answer to the Speak Up conundrum. While it can go someway to answer employee questions and alleviate their worries, it will not help in a culture of fear and blame. Despite its sound advice, if employee experience is that their voice is not welcomed, they will not speak up, no matter what tools are available.

How do we change a culture? 

This is a question we continue to struggle with at the IBE. It is as much about society as it is about business. An ethical culture is one where the organisation’s values are lived and breathed and embodied in every part of the business – from board strategy, to customer care, to employee experience and treatment of suppliers.

Campaigns like #metoo, and arguably social media as a whole, have seen some movement towards speaking up becoming more socially acceptable. Culture change takes a long time, some might say a generation. In the playground, children are no longer branded telltales by teachers, but are encouraged to speak up when they see something which doesn’t look right. 

Questioning behaviour or policies may feel disloyal, threatening the status quo. We may doubt ourselves ("surely they know what the right thing to do?”), we may even feel we will be the ones seen as the troublemakers (as a third of those who witness misconduct and don’t speak up do, according to our European Ethics at Work survey).

Noticing a problem and speaking up about it are just the beginnings of the Speak Up journey. For speaking up to be part of business as usual, organisations need to listen, and take action. We all get better when we receive good feedback, but there are many obstacles we need to overcome before we can truly say we operate in an open culture. 

Sometimes it can be hard to hear feedback; it may feel like criticism, like we are being undermined. It is natural for humans to feel threatened by their mistakes, especially in organisations where there is a hierarchical deference to those in leadership  positions. 

Training managers in how to receive employee concerns is key. Research into neuroscience and behavioural economics tells us that our brains are designed to protect us from the unpleasant feeling of being wrong; there is a tension between our need to develop and the desire to protect our position within the group. This is where models, such as the aviation industry’s ‘Just Culture’ can be helpful. 

Encouraging employees to speak up hails the beginning of a learning culture, one where organisations welcome the opportunity to improve. Listening to concerns, investigating them and acting upon the information received are essential, if this culture change is to be truly meaningful.

The biggest appreciation we can show those who speak up is that they are listened to. According to Protect, the whistleblowing charity, people who contact them have typically raised their concern at least twice internally before they resort to them for outside help. Hearing what employees are saying, and taking action, is the biggest thank you.

We have lots of evidence as to why people don’t speak up, perhaps we should also ask them, given those barriers, why they do. As Margaret Heffernan says in her seminal book, Willful Blindness, "They [whistleblowers] are not cynics, but almost always start as optimists, not non-conformists but true believers. They are not, typically, disgruntled or disappointed; they are not innately rebels but are compelled to speak out when they see organisations or people that they love taking the wrong course.”

Speaking up, rather than being disloyal, should be viewed as the ultimate act of loyalty. And for that we should be truly thankful.

Posted: 29/07/2019

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