Our teams and our organisations have stuck patterns around what gets said and who gets heard. If employees stay silent on key issues, ethical conduct, innovation, inclusion, and talent retention are undermined. Conversely, if employees can speak up to learn from mistakes, challenge decisions and behaviour, and request support on issues such as mental health, we may develop organisational cultures that truly flourish.
HR departments have rushed to roll out “speak up” initiatives and are inviting employees to be brave and have courageous conversations. This is welcome—however, if that’s all they do, it’s a complete waste of time and money.
We speak up based on how those around us (especially our managers) show up. We need leaders who make it safe for us to speak up; leaders who ensure that we don’t have to be so brave in the first place.
Leaders must be mindful of their conversational habits and able to disrupt the ones that don’t serve those around them. If we want to change any habit, we have to be aware, in the moment, when we’re about to do what we’ve always done—and then choose a different response. In other words, we need to be mindful. I recently spoke in a Calm Business webinar on how you can train mindful managers to break their conversational habits and help employees speak up and be heard. Watch the on-demand webinar here.
Disrupting conversational habits
You and I have habits. Lots of them. Let’s talk about the ones I call “conversational habits.” They determine when we speak up and when we stay silent. And when we listen and to whom . . . and when and to whom we don’t.
These habits have huge consequences—they define our lives. What we say and whom we hear affect our relationships, our careers and our leadership practice.
To develop cultures that flourish, we need to train mindful leaders who are aware of and can change their conversational habits. Read more about how to train mindful leaders.
Be aware of the “optimism bubble”
Possibly the most important issue to be aware of is that as a leader, you’re very likely to overestimate the degree to which people around you speak up. Partly this is because you’re likely to have a number of labels associated with you that give you higher status and authority (for example, you have a hierarchical title, you’re known as a “high performer,” you’re in the “in group,” and you may be male and white, traits that in many contexts convey higher status). These labels mean that you’re more likely to feel able to speak up and, when you do, be heard. The mistake is to generalise and assume others have similar experiences. This is called “advantage blindness”—when we have higher-status labels, we don’t notice the impact they have on others. When we have lower-status labels, the effect on our voice is often all too obvious.
On top of this issue is something called the “superiority illusion.” I’ve surveyed over 14,000 employees globally, and what’s very clear is that we all think we are good listeners—far superior to our bosses! In many cases, this is an illusion. We rate ourselves on our intentions, and we rate others on their behaviour. This means we overestimate our listening skills and therefore conclude that it’s not us that needs to change, it’s everyone else. Unfortunately, everyone else is thinking the same thing, so nobody changes!
Being mindful and bursting the bubble
Here are three traps that HR can train leaders to be mindful of if they are to burst the bubble and help others speak up.
- Forgetting how scary you are. Connected with advantage blindness, we underplay the labels we wear—in particular, hierarchical ones—and therefore overestimate how approachable we are. We tell others that “our door is always open” but don’t realise how intimidating it is for others to come through that door. We need to see ourselves as others see us—and do the work we need to do to help them feel at ease.
So, who might find you a bit intimidating?
- Being trapped in an echo chamber, without realising it. We all tend to have our go-to people. The people we seek out for opinions and advice. The people we listen to more attentively. That’s unsurprising—we trust them! Having close colleagues and confidants can be really helpful. But we need to be mindful of and question our list of people. Specifically, we need to notice if we’re in an echo chamber, talking to people who look and sound a lot like us. We also need to ask the often-uncomfortable question: why don’t we listen to different voices? That is the territory of our unconscious bias that we all need to examine.
So, might you be in an echo chamber?
- Sending more “shut up” signals than “speak up” ones. We send signals all the time that either help people speak to us or put them off. For example, when we subtly process our emails while we’re on Zoom calls, that probably discourages others from speaking to us, especially about a personal or challenging issue. When we have what might be politely called a “thinking face”—we frown in deep concentration when we’re interested but to others we simply look daunting—we close others down and may not hear what we need to hear. It’s not about sending “speak up” signals all the time, of course, but the question is, do you know what signals you’re sending when and the impact they’re having?
So, are you sending more “shut up” signals than you realise?
The more mindful and the more aware in the moment our leaders are of these traps, the more able they are to choose different responses that help others to think and speak up skillfully around them. The more others do that, the more likely we are in our organisations to innovate, to include, to adapt quickly to our changing environment, to retain talented employees, and to begin to have the tough conversations we need to have to tackle the complex and uncharted problems we face in the workplace.
To learn more, listen to Megan Reitz’s mindful leadership series on Calm here.