The internet is abuzz with the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, and her very public testimony about her former employer’s internal inconsistencies. Facebook’s issues may seem far away from your day to day concerns. But the underlying message of Haugen’s story should make you pause.
If one of your employees - anywhere in the organization - has a concern about your business, would they tell you? Would you listen?
We mostly all say yes - but the research suggests otherwise.
Imagine yourself on an operating table. It’s a routine procedure, but you have to get it done. It’s the last procedure of the day and the (very human) doctor is tired. But you chose the best doctor and the best hospital and you trust the system to protect you.
But will it? In an eye-opening study, over 90% of nurses confessed an unwillingness to speak up in the face of physician error – even if a patient’s safety is at risk.
This is not a healthcare problem. It’s a hierarchy problem.
In organizational cultures with rigid ladders of authority, speaking up is hard. And in compliance-driven cultures, individual judgement is supplanted by rules and checklists.
When your boss’ boss’ boss is taking a visible risk, are you going to challenge him? Fewer than 10% of employees across industries say yes.
The safest companies are those that can replace a culture of compliance with a culture of dialogue, where candor is valued regardless of its source, and where not speaking up is more negatively perceived than speaking up.
A culture of dialogue supports your ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and invites debate and disagreement to surface better answers to seemingly intractable challenges. In short, this ability depends on your teams’ psychological safety – to blow the whistle in the face of foul play.
This seemingly simple prescription is, in fact, incredibly hard. For compliance-based cultures of silence, undoing established behavior patterns takes time and patience. But more importantly, it’s not a one-time fix.
Playing your part in a culture of dialogue is more than a skill – it’s a muscle. And every athlete will tell you that muscles need conditioning and practice to stay strong.
Reflection Point provides the context, the space and the practice for you and your colleagues to develop psychological safety. Our approach is low-stakes and low risk - but our results are transformative. Across the board, participants tell us that the program increases their willingness to take a risk in their organizations, and to bring up problems and tough issues at work. These are not random questions but validated elements of scholarly research on psychological safety.
But wait - it’s a discussion about a story - how does that raise psychological safety?
Stories provide a unique opportunity to grapple with larger issues related to communication, culture and the human condition. They provide a safe space within the confines of the narrative to explore controversy, nurture debate and invite diverse perspectives and conclusions. Stories inspire us to share our own stories.
In two large all-company events (from management to the shop floor) in manufacturing facilities of Enpro Industries, stories invited new voices and new perspectives:
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ iconic story “The Most Handsome Drowned Man in the World” offered the group a chance to examine how a single, random event can unleash a community’s transformation, the respect we offer others, and the potential change we hold within ourselves.
- William Carlos Williams’ “The Use of Force” inspired conversations in a sister division about taking “justified” risk and the varying balance of safety and necessity held by individuals with divergent levels of relational power.
Erin Rafter, a Senior Human Resource Manager in the second division, observed: “People who don’t normally speak up opened up in remarkable and respectful ways, sharing thoughtful ideas and baring vulnerabilities you didn’t know they had. It reminds you that we have this environment of deep caring, and how important that is.”
A safe and caring environment of dialogue and debate encourages colleagues to discuss the undiscussables, to raise problems their managers haven’t seen. Because you want the whistleblowers to come to you with their concerns - rather than to share their thoughts in the court of public opinion.