In the late 1980s, Delta Airlines struggled to address a series of incidents, including pilots landing at the wrong airport. The incidents were typically due to some poor decision made by a Delta pilot, resulting in Miami-bound planes landing in Fort Lauderdale, for example. However, Delta Airlines’ efforts to correct for these errors seemed to have little effect.
Where were things going wrong?
Airline staff in the cockpit were afraid to speak up. As Michael Lewis explored in his book The Undoing Project, a highly deferential environment meant that pilots were rarely challenged by subordinates, leading to errors going unchecked. On the advice of Amos Tversky – one of the pioneers in understanding the flaws and biases inherent in human decision making – Delta took steps to address the cultural environment of the cockpit. Delta ultimately created an environment where autocratic leadership styles were no longer accepted, and the incidents promptly ceased.
Fostering a speak-up culture is as business-critical now as it was then, arguably even more so. Societal expectations of business have risen sharply, and corporate ethical failures are met with dwindling consumer, regulatory and employee tolerance. Furthermore, the links between speak up and innovation, organizational effectiveness and market growth are now well documented.
And while whistleblowing platforms and processes have gone from strength to strength, playing an important role in exposing and staving off irresponsible corporate behaviour, speak up remains a pervasive issue for many organizations. Today, our research shows that just 50% of employees witnessing misconduct go on to report it, while an even lower proportion (47%) report that they can challenge leaders in their organization without fear of negative repercussions. Traditional approaches are clearly not going far enough.
Fostering a strong and sustainable speak-up culture calls for leaders to adopt a broader understanding of speak up, and embrace three critical shifts:
Understand speak up as broader than raising a concern
Voicing a concern is in many respects the extreme end of the speak up spectrum. Discomfort in sharing an idea or engaging in open discussion – earlier staging posts on the same spectrum – will inevitably translate into discomfort taking the riskier decision to challenge, raise a concern or report on an issue of misconduct. Efforts to foster speak up must therefore include interventions to encourage the sharing of ideas, from the innocuous to the controversial. Critical to fostering speak up is also a recognition that an effective speak-up culture does not depend simply on those ‘speaking’, but also broader capabilities in listening and acting. Our experience with clients reveals that one of the biggest barriers to people speaking up, and the most common reason why they do choose to do so publicly – bypassing internal channels – is a lack of trust that concerns will be heard and acted on.
Look beyond formal channels
An effective reporting architecture is a critical element of encouraging speak up. Indeed, according to Principia’s Ethical Culture Index, a lack of clarity with respect to reporting channels was one of the top three reasons employees gave for not reporting. However, strengthening formal channels is too often relied upon as the primary intervention. Even if whistleblowing and complaints policies, systems and processes are in place, they will not be effectively utilised without attending to the core cultural characteristics that lay the foundation for safe speaking, listening, and responding – awareness, psychological safety, belonging, trust, fairness, transparency, and accountability. Indeed, complementing formal channels with broader cultural interventions helps speak up occur more organically, informally, and – most importantly – early, so that formal channels serve principally as a final recourse.
Recognise the importance of cross-functional integration
The effectiveness of support functions is central to how safe people feel in reporting issues and concerns, as well as their level of trust that effective action will be taken. At present, most organizations still view fostering speak up solely as a risk mitigation exercise, and the exclusive remit of risk and compliance functions. This has a range of unintended consequences, including perceptions of speak-up processes as intimidating and onerous, which deters staff from voicing concerns. Speak up requires strong engagement with Human Resources functions as well as Risk, Compliance, and Legal teams to ensure an appropriate balance between effective risk management and care for the individual.
Poor speak up remains a critical vulnerability for many organizations. Employee engagement with misconduct reporting continues to be inconsistent, reticence to challenge leaders remains widespread, and a lack of trust in leadership action is increasingly propelling employee dissent into the public domain. Fostering healthy speak-up cultures requires an alternative to the dominant, systems-focussed approach, one which goes beyond traditional understandings of speak up and approaches centred on misconduct reporting, and instead cultivates the appropriate culture to encourage employees to consistently voice ideas and concerns. The rewards for those who get this right are significant: increased engagement, enhanced innovation and creativity, and better decision making in every aspect of their operations.
Sabrina Bushe is an Associate Principal at Principia. Prior to joining Principia, Sabrina led the Advisory Services practice at Business in the Community – the UK’s largest responsible business network. She specializes in organizational diversity, inclusion and culture change, and has advised leaders across a wide range of sectors including professional services, banking, media and publishing, consumer goods and the public sector. Sabrina holds a Masters in Global Governance and Ethics from University College London.