Not being able to truly speak up at work and engage in difficult conversations could cost lives, Megan Reitz, author and professor of leadership and dialogue at Hult Ashridge Executive Education, told delegates at the CIPD’s Annual Conference and Exhibition, kicking off the second day of the virtual event.
Speaking via live stream, Reitz addressed how enabling people to feel comfortable speaking up at work was vital to access knowledge and reduce the risk of wrongdoing, inequality and misconduct at work.
But she also warned that encouraging engagement in conversation without considering power differentials could have serious repercussions for businesses.
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She explained that conversational habits – those we have around what we tend to speak up about and when we stay silent – can directly influence company culture by shaping whose individuals’ opinions are listened to and whose are dismissed. “We have individual habits, but we also have team habits. And our organisations create habits,” Reitz said. “You can think of them as stuck patterns in terms of what gets said and what doesn’t and who gets heard and who doesn’t.
“Conversational habits really seriously can cost lives. They cost lives when sectors of society are silenced. They cost lives in organisations when employees can’t speak up about safety issues or mental health issues.”
This is one reason, Reitz said, that many organisations have tried to create “speak-up cultures” in the last couple of years – especially in the wake of the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements. But while she acknowledged that individuals should be trained and feel confident enough to challenge status quos at work or ask difficult questions, she said this was a “complete waste of resources” unless leaders also focused on the skills of listening and inviting people to speak up.
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“Why do people have to be so brave in the first place?” Reitz asked. “We need to stop trying to fix the individual and focus a bit more on the system.”
If an organisation chooses to “move the dial” towards dialogue, she said, leaders and businesses needed to change their relationship with power. “We have to be aware of how we relate to power, and power remains undiscussable in organisations,” Reitz said. “Then we have to turn towards it with curiosity.”
She added that businesses have to be interested in how power dynamics influence every level of a business, and encouraged HR professionals to “unlearn the deep, structural instructions” around the labels we give to individuals in our organisations and to question what it means to be a leader.
“Then we have to be willing to enter into the dialogue, which requires us to be willing to have our minds changed and to go into conversations open to being changed and with a willingness to share decision-making processes,” Reitz said.
She added that this was a “fundamentally difficult” model for businesses to grapple with, and one that employers haven’t trained their leaders and managers to do well in yet. Although, she said: “We are getting there.”