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I believe that telling people to "speak up" is an Ineffective, outdated strategy that needs to be replaced.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:
“...you 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
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.
We need a strategy that aligns with, and supports meeting the universal human needs for safety, belonging, and contribution.
4. A narrow view of why we need people speaking
“Speaking up” is understood primarily as a way to illuminate risk or point out mistakes. It does not convey the full need for, and value of, open upward communication including:
Making sense of what is going on (sensemaking/situational awareness)
We need a strategy that recognizes how important diverse perspectives are for multiple processes foundational for human and organizational success.
5. The language is working against us in multiple ways!
When we use the phrase “speak up” we are creating meaning for people, as subconscious processes come into play simply because of the words and grammar we use.
Our use of “up” literally means up the hierarchy, to a person of greater power. We may be asking someone to tell the designer of the flawed plan that it has a problem, not always so popular….
Next, a big question:
When we keep saying “up,” are we unconsciously and/or subconsciously reinforcing the hierarchy that is causing quite a bit of the problem in the first place?
(I think so, but can't prove it).
Third the grammar, “speak up” is an imperative statement, a command, depicting a parent child relationship. Somehow it does not sound respectful. This is why I call "Speak up" the “non-conversation."
There’s no personal invitation, just a blanket command that if you encounter a problem or error let us know.
Meanwhile, we leaders will be busy with other stuff...
We need a strategy that uses language to create positive meaning, overcome hierarchies’ negative effects, and shifts to more respectful and helpful words and grammar.
6. It's unfair!
People in power intermittently telling people of lesser power to “speak up” places all the responsibility for upward communication on the people of
This is not equitable.
We need a strategy that redistributes responsibility for creating open communication more fairly.
Time to move on!
I believe the flaws in the foundation of the “speak up” strategy are too big to patch up. Like an old, unsafe building, it needs to be condemned, and replaced with a structure that will serve people and their purposes in safe and healthy way.
To survive and thrive in our modern work world, we need a strategy built on a new and firm foundation, one constructed from solid assumptions based on theory and science. It needs to incorporate what we already know about how to meet human and organizational needs at the same time, in a complex system, while nested in our VUCA world.
And...it needs to be fair.
Speaking IN is a new strategy built on firm foundations. High Reliability Organizing, Inclusive Leadership, Complexity Theory, and research on Employee Voice and Silence undergird the model and methods.
The core practices are:
Here's why it. aligns with what we need :
1. Its big picture
It acknowledges the many dynamics affecting our organizational experiences and outcomes:
Our VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous)
The nature and needs of human beings
The nature and needs of complex socio-technical systems
Power dynamics in hierarchies
Speaking IN is not a bunch of initiatives glued together; it is a holistic strategy that can become a way to work. It applies solid theory and research in a way that aligns with what needs to happen to create success given the big picture.
A foundation of speaking IN is embracing the complexity we work in.
2. Directs attention to the people who can create change!
Speaking IN acknowledges the tricky dynamics of social power.
It acknowledges only the people in power can create the conditions where everyone knows sharing a question, concern or idea will be safe and appreciated.
It’s built on, then equips people with powerful knowledge like this:
“The stifling effect of powerlessness is reduced or even eliminated when the individual expects that the voice target will be open to input.” 1
“Our results suggest leader inclusiveness-words and deeds by leaders that invite and appreciate others’ contributions—can take nature off its course, helping to overcome status’ inhibiting effects on psychological safety.” 2
The research is clear and bountiful. We just haven’t applied it!
A foundation of Speaking IN is applying the wonderful work of researchers. Proper training can equip people with the assumptions, attitudes and actions that bring speaking IN to life, allowing the organization to start healing from the inside out.
3. Re-focuses us on purpose
Speaking IN addresses purpose at multiple levels.
Organizational Purpose: Speaking IN facilitates gathering and aligning people and departments around the organizational purpose to contribute, always guided by values.
Individual Purpose: Speaking IN recognizes our human need for meaningful contribution at work and creates a structure to support that.
The Purpose of Contribution: people in power benefit by being aware of how much multiple organizational processes are best served by diverse perspectives including safety, team performance, improvement/learning, innovation, and more.
A foundation of Speaking IN is the importance and power of diverse perspectives around purpose.
4. Uses language helpfully!
Here is a quote that illuminates why speaking IN can create change:
“Language...as an articulation of reality is more primordial than strategy, structure or corporate culture.”
Ted Kaufman-Thinking in Systems
What happens when we shift to the language of Speaking IN?
First, the shift from an imperative command to a question shares power and shows respect.
Second, the direction of an individual’s voice is no longer “up” to a person but “IN” to whatever process is needed for the situation. This depersonalizes the interaction helping viewpoints to be re-framed from a challenge to a constructive contribution.
Third, the “ing” matters. Speaking IN implies a continual conversation, not an intermittent interruption.
A foundation Speaking IN is using language that can shape reality and create a healthy, productive conversations.
5. It's fair!
Ultimately, Speaking IN results in a more equitable way to work by sharing
power and responsibility. The inclusive, collective nature of the model flattens the hierarchy when needed so that the organization can learn and
people can thrive.
The data and stories show we desperately need a new strategy if we want fair workplaces respecting the collective intelligence needed to thrive. To do this we must reconsider the sources of power in complex systems and how we use them.
We must acknowledge and overcome the natural power dynamics in hierarchies to create an environment where everybody knows it's always safe and worthwhile to contribute and sees their individual Speaking IN® shares responsibility when leaders INtentionally take responsibility to create the conditions that make it safe to contribute.
Everyone of us must choose how we relate to those we work with. Ultimately our decisions actually change the world, one moment at a time. With so much power at your fingertips as you work, I urge you to re-think the types of power you use as you lead.
the power of purpose
the power of language
the power of humility
the power of inclusion
the power of appreciation
the power of fairness
the power of trust
the power of diverse perspectives.
Which will you choose?
1 Morrow, K. J., Gustavson, A. M., & Jones, J. “Speaking up behaviours (safety voices) of healthcare workers: A meta-synthesis of qualitative research studies.” International Journal of Nursing Studies 21 Sept 2016
2 Nembhard, I. M., & Edmondson, A. C. “Making it safe: The effects of leader inclusiveness and professional status on psychological safety and improvement efforts in health care teams.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 21 Sept 2006.