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Why it's Time to Move from Speaking Up to Speaking IN®

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

Guest Column | Originally Published 2021 | Published with permission

I believe that telling people to "speak up" is an Ineffective, outdated strategy that needs to be replaced. Here's why, and an alternative idea.

It was the perfect, sunny, summer day…

I was on my front porch, reading an article on Ambiguity, (nerdy, I know) when suddenly, I was struck by a bolt of lightning!

OK, not the real kind, but you know the kind when you realize something BIG...something that fundamentally changes your life, and the way you see and do things?

It happened to me that day.

I realized that our common organizational strategy of telling people to “speak up” has multiple foundational flaws!

This is why it is not working, and never will…

I realized that the flaws of the “speak up” strategy keep us stuck in the dangerous dynamics of employee silence and disengagement, and leaves us powerless to learn, therefore unable to solve organizational problems and grow.

Wait a minute! I thought (jaw dropped, eyes open wide).

Have we spent billions of dollars and countless hours improving and karate-chopping our processes too near perfection, yet, we forgot this one? It seems we have.

Have we left a process/strategy that is failing people and organizations at a dismal rate unexamined, unchallenged and un-replaced?

It seems we have…

...and at great cost.

I actually had a period of despair when I thought “we will never have safe, reliable, purpose-producing outcomes if this is our “best” practice.” This was devastating because I was looking through the lens of healthcare.

(I'm a nurse by background)

But I don’t give up, and the stakes are really high, so I spent time researching and thinking about all the dynamics in play and realized there is another way!

Now my mission is to challenge the strategy of telling people to “speak up” and offer a completely new and different strategy I call speaking IN®. Below, I will reveal the flaws of the ”speak up” approach so that you can decide for yourself if this is one of the biggest problems and opportunities facing organizations today.

Then, I will share the speaking IN strategy, a way to work that unlocks learning, allowing you to access the 2 most precious resources in your organization:

  • what your people know but feel is risky or futile to share

  • energy directed to achievement of your purpose, driven by inclusion

I'll explain why and how this new strategy aligns with the nature and needs

of both individuals and organizations and creates the conditions where

both can thrive.

The Foundational Flaws of "speak up"

These are the flaws I can see, there may be more. They're in no particular order

as they all seem equally crippling.

1. Rooted in faulty assumptions...

Telling people to “speak up” is rooted in a top-down, command and control

approach. This means leaders imagine how work will unfold then write

plans, policies, and procedures to cement work patterns in place for others.

Behind this leadership behavior sits the flawed assumption that

management can actually anticipate how work will unfold on the frontlines.

Yet and the reality is:

“ cannot write procedures to anticipate

all the situations and conditions that shape people’s work.”

Managing the Unexpected-2001

We need a strategy built on assumptions that align with the big picture of the complexity, variability, uncertainty and unexpected events in play as we work in our modern world.

2. Talking to the wrong people!

Research has made it clear that only the people in power can create a

culture where everyone knows it's safe and worthwhile to share needs,

questions, concerns, and ideas.

We need a strategy that re-directs attention to the people who can create a culture where contributions are invited and valued-the people in power.

3. Works against human nature...

The “speaking up” approach asks people to engage in a process that runs counter to our basic human needs for safety, belonging, and meaningful contribution.

It does not help overcome the fiercely human experiences that drive and perpetuate silence and disengagement like:

  • Believing personal harm may result

  • Defaulting to silence because it’s been socialized from youth

  • Feeling powerless

  • Having learned that “speaking up” is futile

Risking the experiences of embarrassment, exclusion, wasting time and energy, or even loss of employment is perceived by our primitive brains as a threat to our survival.

No amount of repeating the phrase “speak up” will ever overpower our basic human drive to survive.