Your Brain at Work

Create Cultures of Speaking Up with Dr. Mona Weiss and Khalil Smith

Episode Summary

The most dangerous sound in any organization is silence. And yet, for many of us, speaking up is one of the hardest things to do at work. In this week’s episode, Assistant Professor of Management and Diversity at the Free University of Berlin Dr. Mona Weiss discusses her research around “employee voice.” She explains why personality alone can’t explain why some people keep quiet and why others make themselves heard, and offers research-backed tips to get everyone more engaged.

Episode Transcription

Chris Weller: 00:05 You just got an email from your boss addressed to the entire team. It's all about this quarter's product strategy and while the logic is sound you realize the conclusions are built entirely on flawed data. Feeling empowered you begin to type out a lengthy message correcting the errors. You even offer a few alternatives that you've been meaning to bring up for weeks now. Suddenly you remember the last time someone challenged your boss' decision making, let's just say it didn't go well. After some hesitation you delete the entire message and you type out sounds great instead. Deflated, you hit send. I'm Chris Weller and you're listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. In today's episode I'm joined by Doctor Mona Weiss, assistant professor of management and diversity at the Free University of Berlin and Khalil Smith, vice president of consulting at NLI. The topic of our discussion the science of speaking up, we explore why speaking up is so hard, why it's so important for companies and how with the right strategies even the shyest among us can learn to find our voice. Mona and Khalil, thanks so much for joining me.
Mona Weiss: 01:18 Thank you for having me.
Khalil Smith: 01:19 Thanks for having me.
Chris Weller: 01:20 I wanted to start with getting on the same page with how the literature talks about voice because we can talk about speaking up all day long as people wanting to feel heard and generally just talking out maybe even being insubordinate but we know that the literature defines it a little differently. Mona, could you kind of give us the quick version of how does the literature define speaking up or voice?
Mona Weiss: 01:43 Well I'm not so sure if there's a quick version. There is usually a definition that goes like voice is a discretionary communication of ideas, suggestions, opinions or concerns about work related issues with the intent to improve organizational functioning. That definition is pretty broad. It encompasses pretty different styles of communications. I think the most important thing in pretty much every scientific definition that is out there is that voice is challenging for one but it is also constructive. It has a constructive intent to it. That is to improve processes within an organization or in your immediate work place.
Chris Weller: 02:31 That's interesting to me because I think the productive part gets lost often, maybe when you're trying to sell speaking up to leaders. Khalil, what have you found?
Khalil Smith: 02:39 I think the thing that jumped out to me around the definition that Mona gave was and I wrote it down, it's intent to improve right or this productive nature. That was part of what you were talking about it, what jumped out to me as well because we know that leaders who care about their employees and creativity and these wonderful things that you know that you get when people feel included and feel like they belong and feel like they're being heard, leaders are more than happy to kind of lean into saying give me your best ideas and I want to kind of understand where you're coming from when those things are important to them. If we go back to kind of the traditional command and control where I'm the leader and I know best and I expect you to just kind of follow my lead, I think those are the leaders that really struggle with why would I care or why would I want people to tell me what can be more productive or what I should be I doing differently when in reality I know best 99% of the time and I just need people to execute on the thing that I've put in front of them. It really is a lot of times the kind of differentiator.
Mona Weiss: 03:37 I was just going to say that I think that you know that all sounds pretty nice and as if everyone who would be spoken up to would react positively and be grateful for that and I think ...
Khalil Smith: 03:49 If only, right.
Mona Weiss: 03:51 Probably in most cases people are grateful but what happens is that they most of the time get threatened. They as a just natural reaction to some kind of critique that they get from a subordinate basically they just show a defensive reaction most of the time by denying either denying that critique that has just been brought up to them or just denying the root cause of it all. We know that from lots of research that especially superiors often feel threatened and therefore devalue the input that has just been given to them. They devalue the people that's come up and talked to them. That's why most of the time or in lots of cases people who speak up also receive backlash.
Khalil Smith: 04:41 Yeah, Mona I think that's such a great call because they have a lot of leaders who I think have grown up in kind of the newer way of leadership who genuinely want people to be able to speak up to them. We don't always recognize the reaction that we're creating or the one that we're having in the moment where it's like no, no, no I want you to bring things to me and then when someone does that there's the, to your point the threat or the frustration or the unintentional shutting down.
Mona Weiss: 05:10 Exactly and we also maybe place the wrong attributions into our superiors so maybe we hold that person responsible for a whole procedure that that person hadn't even created or that has been there way before that person got to the organization. We automatically infer that this person is a representative of the whole organization, of the whole procedure that we are now ultimately questioning.
Chris Weller: 05:38 Are you saying that we shoot the messenger sometimes?
Mona Weiss: 05:40 Definitely, yeah it happens.
Chris Weller: 05:44 Yeah, well I think that's a real issue, right is people ...
Mona Weiss: 05:47 Yeah.
Chris Weller: 05:47 It's the fear of the kind of unknown what will happen if I do this, will other people see this picture that I'm playing out of the organization succeeding or will they see me rocking the boat.
Mona Weiss: 05:57 Yeah and I think that what organizations often fail to recognize is that when employees join them or especially newcomers join them they may have you know fresh insight and a whole lot of new mindset, what they're actually looking for that's why they hired them. Then once they speak up with fresh ideas and fresh mindsets it's not actually the things that others want to hear because it ultimately questions everything that they put in place, right. Speaking up can be very, very boat rocking, yeah.
Khalil Smith: 06:31 It's almost like I didn't hire you to speak up with fresh new ideas. I hired you to validate my existing ideas.
Mona Weiss: 06:37 Exactly.
Chris Weller: 06:37 I think we've done a really good job at poking the problem from a few different angles now that there's status threats involved, other social threats. Mona, I'm wondering if you can share a little bit more about the research you've done in nursing and [aviation 00:06:50].
Mona Weiss: 06:50 Yeah, I'm myself did lots of research within healthcare context and specifically within hospitals. What I found most of the time was this classic hierarchical problem mainly that nurses often, talking to them they often indicated that they are afraid to speak up to physicians because of the hierarchical gaps and they're even afraid to point out errors or things that needed to be done during a treatment of a patient. They simply wouldn't speak up with that. In my research I looked at, trying to understand factors that would promote especially nurses' voice so especially encouraging the nurses to speak up to the physicians. There are actually three things that kind of stuck out. For one thing I found that they were like first of all factors pertaining to the person, to the nurses themselves in that case. We call that communion or communal oriented personality type.
Mona Weiss: 07:53 The more concerned people were about the reactions of others, the less they spoke up within or in situations that actually required them to speak up. That was the first hint that maybe there's something within your personality that really seems to predict whether or not you're likely to question a superior or question a procedure that is faulty. The other thing that surfaced was that leadership and that's probably not surprising because we see this in almost every organization, leadership was the most important factor in soliciting voice among nurses. We had for example a study that looked at leader communication, so specific words that leaders would use during the treatment of a patient.
Mona Weiss: 08:43 For example you can talk in a more individualistic style. Yeah, you can say well next I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that. I will give them some medicine or you can really invite and push others to participate such as using or through using collective language. We can think about ways to treat a patient, what do you think, let me know what your guesses are, let me know what your suggestions are. That was really the most predictive factor when it came to speaking up. Whenever a leader used collectivist language they could increase the odds of people speaking up by almost 30% so that was a lot. Given that we really looked at communication or communication happening in the OR that was really great insight at the time.
Chris Weller: 09:38 Thirty percent more speaking up by changing language to ...
Mona Weiss: 09:42 By simply using, yeah we [inaudible 00:09:44] yeah and simply promoting collective thought within a team.
Chris Weller: 09:53 We're going to take a short break but when we come back we'll hear more from Mona and Khalil about how to raise quiet voices, stay tuned.
Speaker 4: 10:00 If you're enjoying Your Brain at Work so far, we bet you'll really love NLI's annual conference, the NeuroLeadership Summit where the most progressive business leaders and researchers come together for two days to share their strategies and the latest science of leadership. Sign up at and use the promo code podcastten to receive a ten percent discount.
Chris Weller: 10:26 I was actually curious to hear what in addition to those simple language tweaks leaders could implement to try to move towards a culture of speaking up.
Mona Weiss: 10:35 There's probably a lot more things that leaders can do in addition to being more inclusive. There's one example that I really liked from the hospital that I worked with in Switzerland. One thing that they did was they hung up posters in the emergency room that said, that gave them sort of the ten steps to speak up and that sort of made that speaking up importance really salient within the context that well where it needed to be. Just a simple poster really improved that kind of weakened the barrier that many people had in their heads about speaking up to senior physicians or to surgeons and really improved their speaking up behavior in those critical moments.
Mona Weiss: 11:19 Of course the other thing is training programs and I did that myself but I think that can be very tedious and it's not said that a simple training program once implemented will change a whole organizational culture. I think for that to happen you need to have people at the top of the organization who really want this change to happen and who really communicate that change to their employees. When we think about management theory and how people at the top function like the upper echelons of the organization who basically transmit the values and the climate to each and every one below them, that means that those are the people who really need to change the system and to really make the culture change. They can do it just by simply changing their own behavior and by talking to people, asking for ideas, asking for input and ask subordinates to challenge them.
Chris Weller: 12:21 I'd love to collect the thread of sharing an idea among basically peers to up all the way up to challenging someone's behavior that could potentially be life threatening for yourself or other people or both. Khalil, could you talk a little bit about what analyzed thinking has been around this speaking up continuum and how things kind of function along that spectrum?
Khalil Smith: 12:41 Yeah, so the continuum is something that NeuroLeadership Institute has been playing around with a bit. It was kind of the brain child of our CEO and co founder Dr. David Rock, as we were talking about what does speaking up mean and how do we better understand the behaviors associated with it, we continue to pull it apart and understand that actually while the behaviors may be very similar across a wide range of different things that are happening or different situations that we're exposed to, those situations do have inherently a different degree of threat. If we look at kind of three key elements, the first would be introducing an idea or sharing your own idea.
Khalil Smith: 13:23 There's some threat there because it's my idea and what are people going to think and how is it going to be productively put forward and how will it be received and all of that. It's kind of on the lower end of the spectrum, to the left if you think about it, kind of on a left right continuum. Then the second would be challenging someone else's idea. Challenging someone else's idea is you know at times you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach if you're in a meeting or you think about well, do I really want to go there, how important is this. Then on the far right on this spectrum is challenging someone else's behavior because our behavior at times are things that we may associate more with kind of who we are as an individual.
Khalil Smith: 14:02 For the person who's delivering it they tend to have a higher degree of threat as well. If we look at each of those areas again sharing my own idea, challenging someone else's idea and challenging someone else's behavior we've recognized that, at least kind of our initial hypothesis is that there are different degrees of threat but that the underlying behaviors in each of those are the same that we need to recognize the moment, right notice the moment and then manage my own kind of emotion or my own threat in that moment and then manage the threat in that conversation and the threat potentially to the other person as there is one. That's the way that we've kind of conceptualized this speaking up continuum and talked about it with a number of practitioners and they said yeah actually that really resonates with me, it seems to make sense. It's something we're continuing to explore and really validate through the science and make sure that it stands up as we continue to kind of explore other places where it might factor in.
Mona Weiss: 14:56 Basically I really, I like this idea of conceptualizing speaking up on a continuum however I would add a layer of complexity to that namely context because there maybe some context in which people are sharing ideas questioning each other's viewpoints, really challenging each other, you know we think about a start up where people just do that in order to push their creative process. In other contexts however people may not do that at all. It's very much bureaucratic organization, very hierarchical top down, organizing where idea sharing is not something that happens on a day to day basis. In that context even just speaking up with a simple new but fresh idea can be really threatening and can really pose a tremendous amount of threat on the person who speaks up. I think we need to when we talk about speaking up conceptualize on a continuum also add that into account and kind of put that into the equation as well.
Khalil Smith: 16:07 Yeah, Mona something that jumps out to me, and I go back to the idea that you brought up before at the beginning of our chat around the intent to improve and how do we do that in ways that are respectful and that are inclusive and that bring other people in because some of the environments that I've seen and you spoke about this idea of bias as well, married these ideas where it's like we're unintentionally shutting down people who don't see things the same way that we do and yet we frame it under this larger domain of speaking up. When the new person joins and says actually I think we should do it a different way we say well you don't know what you're talking about. We want to listen to these people who are speaking up and telling us that that's the right way to do it.
Khalil Smith: 16:52 It's fascinating because I think your point around context is really well taken for us to continue to think about what are the right environments, how do we create the right conditions where we're being specific around what speaking up is and isn't, what leaders should and shouldn't be doing. How do we maximize it or how do we put people in a state where they feel like actually it's not worth it and it feels like there's a lot of different dynamics and a lot of different pieces that wind up coming together there. I feel like at the same time you've provided some really simple things that we can do that just kind of move the ball forward if you will.
Chris Weller: 17:28 Yeah, I totally agree. I think that's a great place to wrap this up. Mona and Khalil, thank you so much for joining me.
Mona Weiss: 17:34 Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.
Khalil Smith: 17:36 Always great to be on with Mona because I learn a ton.
Chris Weller: 17:46 Your Brain at Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us making organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our executive producer for Your Brain at Work is Noah [Gil 00:17:58], Danielle [Kershinblant 00:17:59] is our editor, [Gabriel Varisen 00:18:00] our associate producer and [Brian Crewman 00:18:02] is our sound mixer. Original music is by [Grant Subritksy 00:18:05] and [inaudible 00:18:06]. A special thanks to Mona Weiss and Khalil Smith and to you for listening. We'll see you next time.