speak-up-at-work

8 tips for encouraging team members to speak up at work

If you’ve ever worked in a fractious or toxic work environment, you know how difficult it can be to speak up at work. 

Hushed and guarded conversations. Uncertainty about who to trust. Dread about retribution for those who dare to raise concerns. Worrying about the future of your career. In the worst cases, a pervasive sense of fear and not even daring to ask for permission to speak freely.

We’ve seen exactly this scenario emerge in recent years with Google, which as it grew from a handful of like-minded techies to 10,000 employees to upwards of 100,000 seemed to forget about its own “don’t be evil” motto as leaders went after more and more business at any cost.

speak up at work

The company that once had incredibly high ratings for employee satisfaction and employee engagement ended up facing high-profile news reports when staff and contractors around the globe walked off the job on November 1, 2018, to protest Google’s corporate culture.

Worldwide, news agencies reported how Google staffers and contractors shared complaints about the way contract workers were treated, sexism, sexual harassment (including paying male executives millions in exit packages – without addressing inappropriate behavior), racism, unethical behavior and engaging in business practices that put profits ahead of human rights.

In January of this year, Ross LaJeunesse wrote an article for Medium that detailed why he left his role as Google’s Head of International Relations. His article is one of the most personal accounts validating the concerns of those Googlers who walked off the job.

In 2010, LaJeunesse was instrumental in Google’s courageous and ethical decision not to censor search results in China. But by 2017, the company was involved in creating a new search engine for China named “Dragonfly” that would facilitate censorship.

The company that had once held firm to upholding human rights was also very interested in doing Cloud business with the government of Saudi Arabia — known for its terrible track record on human rights — and the Cloud executives didn’t want LaJeunesse’s Human Rights team involved in any of it. There were also ethically questionable Artificial Intelligence projects being brokered in China and for US military purposes.

LaJeunesse describes how Google’s workplace culture deteriorated to the point that senior staff were abusive toward young women team members and frequently blatantly racist, homophobic and sexist. 

As a Google manager who was part of their elite executive pool, LaJeunesse says he repeatedly raised his concerns with both Human Resources and senior executives. Over and over, nothing was investigated. 

One day, a senior HR director copied LaJeunesse on an email by accident in which the director was asking someone else to “do some digging” on LaJeunesse because he was bringing up so many issues (rather than asking someone to look into the problems being raised!).

How does a company that prided itself on upholding human rights and offering a safe and respectful workplace end up in such a different place in such a short time?

What helps other companies stay true to a mission without compromising ethics?

How do you create (and sustain!) a company culture that is inclusive and respectful of diversity?

8 strategies to encourage your team to speak up

Here are some strategies leaders can use to build a strong culture that prevents these kinds of problems:

  • Look inward and check your biases. If you tend to think, “Oh, this person is always raising problems and they’re so negative” is it possible that while that may be true, they might be right on this one?
  • Make an effort to be objective. Step back from the situation and consider whether you are making assumptions (pro tip: try our Ladder of Assumptions tool). You might be surprised to realize that you’re reading into things or there is some other misunderstanding.
  • Engage with the staff who are raising concerns. In addition to really listening to what they have to say about the problems they’re bringing to you, ask for their insight into reasonable solutions.
  • Don’t add to the problem. Pointing fingers, being negative or talking badly about people who speaking up at work about something that troubles them will not improve anything — but it will probably shut down any discussion (on this concern and on future ones). If you have to vent, find someone you can really trust (like a mentor or coach) to help you turn the venting into constructive actions or journal about your feelings. 
  • Presume that people speaking up at work have good intentions. It’s easy to start with a different presumption. Instead, try to see things from their perspective. What is important to them in this situation? Why is it important to them? Be curious and ask questions.
  • Gather facts. There are always different sides to every story (and the truth, if there is one truth, may lie somewhere in the middle).
  • Ask for input from others. Be careful that you’re not just soliciting input from those you know will agree with you — even if you’re wrong!
  • Don’t shoot the messenger. You might learn some disheartening facts, but you’re gathering information. You might sometimes have to deal with difficult employees who are creating dissent or stirring up trouble, but generally being receptive to hearing the good and the bad is very important if you want people to continue to be honest with you. 

Watch for our next blog on June 2, when we continue to explore how to eliminate fears of speaking up at work by reviewing some strategies that foster a culture of open feedback. 

Coach’s Questions:

Have you ever hesitated to share your opinion about something for fear of retribution? Do you think your team members ever fear speaking up at work? What can you do to help eliminate fears and encourage people to speak frankly?

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