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What We're Reading
Why Employees Are Afraid to Speak . By James R. Detert & Amy C. Edmondson. Harvard Business Review, May 1, 2007, Reprint #F0705B.
This article is by two authors who have taught me a lot about the subject of speaking up. I have spent a good deal of time in the past month revising 'The Courage to Speak Up' keynote that I delivered last week to the company that gave me my first professional job 30 years ago; The Principal Financial Group. Like many things we do, it's easier to keep doing what we have done and know works. Yet, after four years it was time to revise and reassess this speech. I started with a clean sheet and built it from there. What was most interesting to me was adding the five potential negative repercussions of speaking up. They are life, legal, reputation, feelings and job. Putting someone's life on the line by not speaking up was done by a pilot who didn't tell the senior pilot in no uncertain terms that he was concerned there was a build up of ice on the wing. That caused a fatal crash.
Senior executives who now sign papers stating their financial reports are in order put their liberty on the line. This is the result of the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation and if they are wrong because someone didn't speak truth to power, or they didn't ask the right question, they can go to jail. Life and freedom are both very serious negative repercussions. These fall into the category of whistleblowing for those who do speak up. While the repercussion can be loss of life or jail, if you ask people why they don't speak up, they most often say, they were afraid for their job. We watched this week as some FAA Inspectors told Congress that some of their colleagues gave Southwest Airline a pass on required maintenance. When they had called this to some 'higher ups' attention, their jobs had been threatened.
So a plane gets ice on the wings, or has a crack in the metal and while people worry about the potential loss of life, it's really their job that they feel is most at risk. They are right as many whistleblowers do lose their job or get shuffled off to a windowless office with no working phone or computer. They may have a job, but they sure don't have a thriving future career.
But what is really on the line for most people? It's their reputation or feelings. Their reputation is on the line because they can be labeled a troublemaker, 'chicken little' or alarmist. Or they offer up an unproven idea and feel they have lost their reputation as a competent professional. Or in front of their colleagues a Screamer yells, "That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard." That results in 'loss of face', a concept that is often an unnamed elephant. Other common feelings that represent loss of face are guilt, shame, and embarrassment.
I'm not saying that feelings aren't worth considering, but are they really so important when you have an idea, a concern, a provocative question? What's at stake is that those behaviors represent learning behaviors and a chance for the person, organization and group to learn what to do differently. Doing things differently is required for innovation. Innovation comes from diverse ways of thinking and managed risk. In knowledge and financial service industries, new services, products and ways of providing those will only arise from new ideas, experimentation and some failure. So while people may not speak up because they don't want to put their job or feelings on the line now, they may just be deferring the moment because their organization didn't find new products before the competition. Or they never found new ways to provide those services at a lower cost, so their job is off-shored.
There is also an emotional cost to the person who doesn't speak up. It's frustrating and stressful to keep it all inside because people really do want to help their organizations be successful.
What is really on the line when you choose to not speak up?
The Courage to Speak Up Keynote Excerpt
Look for an excerpt from my "The Courage to Speak Up" keynote speech on this website; coming soon!
Naming Elephants Presentation
To help you learn how to practice one form of speaking up, the Naming Elephant Presentation is on sale this month.
Click here for more information and to order.
May 19 - The Five Most Common Unnamed Elephants Roaming in Your Workplace (2 different times) - More
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Thanks for your interest and support.
Sue Annis Hammond