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What it takes to build a speak-up culture in the workplace

November 21, 2022 Andrea Warmington

Building a speak-up culture within a workplace takes effort, but it’s a worthy endeavour for leaders who want to increase engagement and reduce attrition. Victoria Lewis, CEO of Byrne Dean, Ajit Moorthy, Director of Resolution at Byrne Dean, Fudia Smartt, Principal Consultant at Byrne Dean, and Julie Chakraverty, Founder of Rungway, shared their thoughts on how to foster a speak-up culture within organisations in a recent webinar hosted by Byrne Dean, which include acknowledging the barriers that can prevent people from speaking up, making it easier for quieter voices to be heard, and the importance of surfacing data to influence change.

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Recognise that traditional “speak-up” channels are often adversarial

Traditional channels for speaking up are increasingly ineffective and often, inherently adversarial. Leaders can no longer rely on top-down approaches, such as surveys, which ask set questions at set times and are unlikely to yield the insights that companies are looking for, while whistleblowing lines, used to report bullying or harassment, “can seem a very drastic option,” says Julie, who suggests putting a mechanism in place that allows people to speak less formally, honestly and anonymously. Fudia agrees that companies need to introduce more channels for people to speak up. “You need to be finding as many routes as possible to make people feel safe in the workplace and embedded in the organisation,” she says.

Make room for employees to speak up before it’s too late

If an employee does speak up during one of these traditional channels, it’s often too late to resolve the issue, resulting in attrition. “When people tend to raise grievances and complaints, they don’t tend to last long within an organisation,” says Fudia. “It can be off-putting for people to raise a concern at all, they’d rather just leave quietly, and the bad managers stay on and it’s a known problem within a company that people don’t address.” The data backs this up, with Julie noting that “a toxic corporate culture is 10 times more predictive of attrition than compensation. Companies might get a higher return on retention if they fix their corporate culture”.

Make space for the quieter voices to speak up

Not everyone feels empowered to speak up for a myriad of reasons: they might be part of a minority community be naturally introverted. Those at all rungs of the ladder might be worried about whether speaking up could impact their career trajectory. Others might be bystanders who are afraid to speak up for fear of making others uncomfortable or saying the wrong thing. Julie says it’s important that employers provide people with more options around how and when they speak up. “If you allow people the option to ask a question anonymously, 90% will take it, and in some cohorts, that’s 100%.”

Recognise the power imbalances in your company

The hierarchical nature of workplaces and resulting power imbalances can also be a barrier to speaking up.  “Power comes in many forms, it could be about status, but it’s also about tenure, it’s personality led, what I’m seeing now post-pandemic is that it’s being proximity led - people being in on certain days giving them proximity to their leaders, colleagues, and resources” says Victoria. “For me one of the key obstacles [to building a speak-up culture] is power.” Ajit notes that there is an increased level of anxiety amongst employees about job security as a result of the cost of living crisis. “There’s a fear that they may lose their jobs, which creates the effect that they might keep their heads down and not rock the boat.”

Be relentless to surface data from unfiltered, honest voices

Data is crucial to enacting real cultural change and leaders must be “relentless about surfacing honest, unfiltered data”, says Julie. Ajit also notes that data is often “a critical influencer in how leaders see the value of change” and making changes to their corporate culture. Data is also essential for leaders who want to measure and report on the success of cultural change initiatives. Fudia agrees. “What you don’t measure, you can’t manage.”

Want to hear the full discussion? Watch this webinar on-demand here.