August 2, 2023

Building a Strong Speak Up Culture for Business Success

Harness the power of a speak up culture to gain a competitive advantage in today’s economy.

Picture of By Stuart Paap

By Stuart Paap

Never Miss an Article or Podcast - Subscribe To Our Newsletter

In today’s fiercely competitive business landscape, a thriving speak-up culture is crucial for success. 

However, an alarming number of organizations and leaders falter by neglecting to embrace and protect the power of “unpleasant speech,” within their organizations. 

We recently had the privilege of engaging in an insightful conversation with Stanford University Professor of Finance Jonathan Berk as a guest on our podcast “Stand Up to Stand Out.” In this episode Jonathan sheds light on how dissent and challenging assumptions both fuel transformative growth within a thriving organization. 

💡As Jonathan emphasizes, it’s by daring to speak up and question the status quo that the most revolutionary ideas come to life. 

Scroll down for the top three takeaways from our conversation with Jonathan, including valuable leadership insights for fostering a true speak up culture within your own team.

Protect Unpleasant Speech on Your Team

Making sure your team feels comfortable sharing ideas, even critical ones, is key to building a culture of growth and constant improvement. 

Rather than shying away from critical questions, it’s crucial to recognize that “unpleasant speech” can serve as a powerful catalyst for positive change. 

Unpleasant speech is any speech or dialogue in the workplace that offers a critical analysis or view. It’s often speech that leaders and senior executives don’t want to hear. 

Unpleasant speech is a core part of a strong speak up culture

Unpleasant speech might:

  • Draw attention to infective organizational practices 
  • Reveal gaps in the corporate culture 
  • Address projects veering off course
  • Challenge a leader’s viewpoint 

According to Jonathan, protecting unpleasant speech and freedom of speech, even when it may be uncomfortable, is a good business practice. He even goes so far to say that companies who fail to protect unpleasant speech put themselves at a competitive disadvantage. 

In fact, numerous significant corporate blunders, such as the  1986 Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster or the BP oil spill could have been averted if leaders heeded unpleasant speech. 

Gain further insights into the value of protecting unpleasant speech by listening to Jonathan’s conversation with John Paulson, who’s outside of the box thinking enabled him to foresee the 2008 mortgage crisis before anyone else.

Refrain from Ostracizing Employees Who Speak Out

Forward thinking leaders understand the pivotal role of an open and inclusive culture in cultivating high performing teams. 

Sadly, too often, the exchange of ideas is stifled through social ostracism when employees speak up or challenge the norm. 

Social ostracism in the workplace is used as a way to shut down an employee who is speaking their mind. Whether consciously or unconsciously, leaders might use social ostracism as a tool for managing dissent, but the negative impacts reach further than the detrimental effects on an employee’s occupational health. 

As Jonathan points out, “the only new ideas are obviously ideas where you disagree with everybody. Because if you agree with everybody, you’re doing the same old thing, and you’re not going to really innovate.” 

To foster true innovation leaders must resist the urge to silence dissenting voices. 

By encouraging authentic dialogue and providing a safe space for employees to express their opinions, leaders can spark the diverse viewpoints needed to fuel progress and drive success.

Incentivize Dissent

Wait what? Actually incentivize your own team to dissent? Yes! 

Incentives drive human behavior. 

Jonathan shares:

“It’s true that individuals make a lot of mistakes. It’s true human behavior on an individual level can be quite erratic, but as I like to say, human behavior is easy to predict. All you need to do is look at the incentives right?” 

To truly foster a culture of speaking up, leaders must not merely create a safe space but actively promote dissenting viewpoints. Encouraging employees to challenge the status quo is vital, along with building a blameless culture

Creating an environment where open expression is not only welcomed but rewarded is key to unlocking the full potential of your team. 

Google serves as an example, offering an award for people who speak out – even if they are wrong. 

Hear more about how Alphabet and Google CFO Ruth Porat runs blameless post mortems on Joanthan’s podcast: All Else Equal.

The Takeaway: 3 Benefits of a Speak Up Culture

A speak up culture is one where employees feel emboldened to challenge ideas, disrupt the status quo and voice their opinions. 

A speak up culture within an organization offers a multitude of benefits that are indispensable for growth and success. 

  1. Competitive advantage: Speak up cultures foster a rich pool of diverse perspectives leading to innovative solutions to complex problems

  2. Stronger morale: A speak up culture can nurture a deeper sense of ownership and empowerment among employees

  3. Continuous improvement: Open communication and constructive feedback can promote continuous improvement and learning 

The bottom line is that a speak up culture can serve as a catalyst for positive change, driving an organization towards greater collaboration, creativity and success. 

Did these leadership insights resonate with you?

Listen to the full interview with Jonathan Berk on our podcast here: Building A Better Business with Dissent, Mistakes and Unpleasant Speech

Learn more about Jonathan’s work:
Connect with Jonathan on LinkedIn

Looking to build your influence? Get in touch below and ask to take our exclusive leadership influence styles assessment here, at Influence DNA.

“Everything I ever learned is that proximity matters to performance,” says Michael Arena, faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania. “It turns out that’s not true.”

Additional Reading: