Talking Up

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 20 – May 29, 2006

At the recent opening party of our Brisbane office someone overheard me greeting Peter Geyer. Later they confessed surprise at my greeting, I am not sure whether they had an expectation that I curtsied or lay prostrate on the floor, but telling Peter that I had prepared myself for seeing him by taking a double dose of anti depressants that morning was not what they expected. The person said “you talk like that to your boss”? My reply, actually I report to Peter Mac but hell yeah why not just because the guy’s name is on the door doesn’t mean he’s not up for a laugh. Maybe it is the camaraderie built from catching 6am flights from NZ together that has given me this sense of comfort; on the other hand Eliza has been ill so perhaps there has been a delay in issuing my pink slip.

It is great to have fun at work and I confess to be the kind of person who likes to laugh which is why I have not chosen a profession where joking is prohibited. You will never see me working at the X-ray machines at the airport. I am lucky I can keep my mouth closed long enough about the Bush administration to walk through the machine; if the queue is long the pressure on me to not make a smart mouth remark is almost unbearable. For many of us, it is unimaginable to think of a day going by without sharing jokes or our thoughts with co workers, regardless of their rank with in the organisation. Unfortunately, in many businesses ‘talking up’ is discouraged; and those companies that do not encourage free and open interaction between all workers can suffer greatly for the loss of knowledge and experience.

Last year I wrote about my brother the rocket scientist and the little mishap they had at NASA with the space shuttle. You may recall that the disintegration of the shuttle was blamed on damage caused to the heat shields of the ship that occurred when a piece of insulating foam hit the hull on take off? Junior engineers at NASA expressed concern about the damage, but their superiors told them to mind their own business and shut up. This is an extreme example of the negative impact of not being able to speak up at work; fortunately for most companies the stakes are not so high.

According to Julie Cogan from the Australian Graduate School of Management, office culture can encourage or discourage employees from speaking up. Organisations need a culture and process for employees to voice dissent or bad news. “If you don’t – you keep vital information under wraps” Cogan says. There are a number of ways companies can encourage employees to share their views. One is to appoint a rotating devils advocate, another is to  employ some of Edward De Bono’s techniques of provocation –  the six hats theory or introducing a process of presenting alternative views such as the ‘fishbone diagram’. What ever a business uses, it is important to encourage employees to speak up and communicate positive and negative ideas at work.

Research done by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and Professor James Detert from Penn State explores the reasons we are hesitant to speak up to internal authorities in the workplace. They believe that it is possible to create environments that encourage employees to engage both their “latent voice” and “upward voice”. The latent voice is when an employee considers speaking up about an issue, problem or an improvement opportunity and chooses not to. It is all of the potential communications that may not in fact occur. Having exposed you to this term, we can now have a secret language within Geyer. Similar to the way that mothers gently correct a loud child with “honey lets use our inside voices” we can softly urge one another “Can you please make that statement with your latent voice” in other words time for you to shut up already.

Where latent voice refers to the things we thought of saying but didn’t,” upward voice” refers to the fear or hesitancy in communicating with people higher up in the company, those with the perceived power to actually act on your suggestion. The hesitation comes from not wanting to subject yourself to embarrassment or the fear of losing your job. The research suggests that it is in this area that the signals leaders send are important. To encourage communication a leader must be open, interested and most important, willing to act on a subordinate’s voice. Anything an organization can do to prevent the widespread belief that voice is unsafe or not worth your time is likely to increase the upward communication flow. This in turn will create greater value by getting more ideas on the table by utilizing the knowledge and experience that exists within.

There are two factors that lead people to feel more or less safe in speaking up in the workplace: individual differences and contextual factors. Not everyone has the personality or disposition to communicate to the boss and having the ability to challenge in a way that does not cause others to become defensive is a developed skill. Context refers to the type of organisation we work for, is it hierarchical or egalitarian, does the company make the time or have a venue for such conversations, a suggestion box or gripe session? Interestingly, one of the reasons we are hesitant to speak up is instinctive human behaviour. Since living in caves we knew it was better for survival to avoid risks or threats, therefore according to Edmosdson and Deterts research we have “inherited emotional cognitive mechanisms that motivate us to avoid perceived risks to our psychological and material well-being”

It is critical to note that in encouraging people to express their ‘upward voice’ may not produce what some people think is a “nice” workplace. Receiving direct criticism or comments from your co-workers whether they are senior or junior can make you feel pretty bad. It is important to remember that the bad comes with the good and to grow and learn and progress in our careers we need open and honest feedback. At my last job I was responsible for leading several groups of designers, once they all banded together to let me know how “mean” I was because I had told them that the vinyl wall coverings they were considering were inappropriate. After I explained that it had nothing to do with them personally, it was and issue of choosing a high maintenance product for low maintenance client they still did not get it. I had to knock them over the head with a club; workplace violence is a terrific motivator!

To grow and learn as an organisation, or as individuals, it is important to get honest feedback about the work we do. Responding to issues we are unaware of is good for the psychics amongst us, but for the rest of us poor sods we need the facts. For many the prospect of directly challenging or delivering bad news, is so uncomfortable they figure why bother? I suppose you bother because you really want to go out there and make a difference. We should all consider ourselves lucky in that in our line of work we will never have to deliver really bad news to anyone, not yet at least. “Sorry Mr. client we need to inform you that the groovy paint we specified has been emitting higher than normal  VOC levels and it is likely to cause brain damage to most if not all of your staff ”  Laurie’s latent voice

Some of the changes that we can make in environments to encourage upward voice are obvious. Creating workspaces with fewer barriers, allowing people to interact with greater frequency. It has also been proven that people speak up more in smaller groups and in settings that are more intimate. For companies where there is physical distance between sites, along with the added burden of cultural and generational differences there is a real challenge. As we begin to design more spaces on larger floor plates, and those with side cores we may want to think hard about creating intimacy.

Last year we designed a space for a company that had merged with another, we created wonderful lounges that provide the organisation physical space to connect with one another, unfortunately we heard that the two groups remain distinct to the point they will not even share a beer together on Friday nights. One group has their drinks an hour before the other!  In addition, there is further division created by people speaking different languages in the office. Before the merger, the reigning CEO felt it was the companies point of differentiation to hire people who spoke different languages, the new CEO did not. What had been a good thing quickly turned to a bad thing. The point is that a lot of this has nothing to do with the physical space; a company may change leaders as they did in the example above, leaders can change philosophies, they can be arrogant or too busy or lack the interpersonal skills. All of these factors contribute to an organisations ability to speak up.

From the research that I have done for this piece the most disturbing thing I learned is the degree of fear that appears to be the present in many people’s work life. Being older and have a bit more experience under my expanding belt, it is unimaginable to think that many workers are too scared to challenge their boss and as a result are put in harms way. The Sydney Morning Herald did a feature article on the risks younger workers are at because they are hesitant to question or challenge their bosses: one kid had his arm caught in a dough mixer in a bakery, another fell from an unfenced platform, another died when the forklift he drove tipped over on a ramp. The risk is not only for youthful employees but also for those that are part time. Unfortunately the new industrial relations legislation will exacerbate the vulnerability of the young and temporary workers; this could lead to Australian businesses being slow to innovate.

We must consider ourselves very lucky that in our line of work the dangers are minimal; yes I know that Ella Lee almost broke her foot when she dropped a stack – perhaps she should avoid the materials library after the two martini supplier lunch. Oh I’m just joking and I was joking when I told PG I needed a double dose of antidepressants to face him. The real message is that we should not fear sharing and talking and being honest with one another and in the likely event we go out and hurt someone’s feeling we just need to go back and say I’m sorry. Even if it hurts, it is what makes us great.

Sources

Do I Dare Say Something

By Sarah Jane Gilbert

Working Knowledge – HarvardBusinessSchool Publication   March 20, 2006

Latent Voice Episodes: The Situation – Specific Nature of Speaking up at Work (Research Abstract)

By Amy Edmondson and James Detert

Double Whammy under New Industrial Laws for the Young Worker

By Michael Quinlan

The Sydney Morning Herald April 24, 2006

Dissent Vital Part of Organisations

By Fiona Smith

The Australian Financial Review May 16, 2006

 

 

 

 

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