A safe to speak out work culture refers to having a protected psychological space for employees to voice about any workplace concerns, challenges or conflicts they may be facing at work, as well actively encouraging them to offer opportunities for innovation. It is about giving employees a voice in a safe space that is heard and acted upon.
Many businesses are still hesitant to promote a culture in which it’s safe to speak out for fear of repercussions, opening a bottomless can of worms, or being undermined or overpowered. Research shows that having a speak out culture in fact improves an organisation’s efficiency, inclusivity and employee satisfaction, so we asked global D&I experts what the best ways are to create psychological safety.
Thom Dennis, CEO of Serenity In Leadership says: “It’s important to acknowledge that inclusion, safety and having a voice will all mean different things to different people, so we need to have a variety of tools and solutions on offer. Fundamentally though people will feel safe to speak up if they think they will be authentically listened to, and appropriate action will be taken. If they think speaking up will be futile, they won’t bother which can easily result in a needless loss of talent and diversity.”
Suzie Lewis, Founder and MD of Transform for Value agrees and says: “Leaders need to have deliberate practice to create the environment for courageous conversations and healthy challenge to happen, and to role model behaviours and set an example so that colleagues can bring their authentic selves to work. Psychological safety is one of the fundamental building blocks of an inclusive culture and must be built and defined together.”
Raggi Kotak, a racial justice facilitator, thinks we need to slow things down and actively listen to what is being said. “Welcome curiosity not judgment, encourage differences in opinions and create spaces where people feel comfortable to contribute and it’s ok to make mistakes. These are great learning moments for us all to move forwards from.”
“Diversity is key to a speak out culture. Ideally, the senior leadership team will be openly diverse themselves (with visible and invisible differences) and will include issues around inclusion in any discussion around strategy and practice. Encouraging, training and empowering line managers to demonstrate open, flexible and inclusive practices is crucial too,” according to Jane Hatton, CEO of Evenbreak, ‘the UK’s most accessible job board’.
Joanne Lockwood, a Diversity & Inclusion & Belonging Specialist who also promotes Transgender Awareness to organisations, says: “Psychological safety is all about ensuring people are free to be themselves and to speak their truth. When psychological safety isn’t present then our mental health can be impacted and we are more likely to experience intersectional microaggressions in the form of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Simply having a culture of respect with a tone of voice and acceptable language policy is a great place to start.”
Thom Dennis summarises and shares solutions for leaders to create a safe culture that allows its employees to speak out:-
1) Create psychological safety in an inclusive culture. A safe space is realised through trust, understanding, empathy and by setting an example. Authenticity is at the heart of good communication, safety and inclusivity.
2) Training, training and training. A single workshop won’t cut it. Protocols, training programmes and internal strategies need to be in place, regularly reviewed and actioned to cultivate a safe space for everyone to work and communicate in harmony. A change of leadership is not an automatic reason for training to be stopped early; cutting training breeds cynicism and disaffection.
3) Get regular feedback and initiate constructive conversations. Reach out to employees for their input. Make feedback a regular, informal exchange. Make yourself available by actively encouraging your team to reach out to you and be present when they do. Give feedback that is responsive rather that reactionary.
4) Listen to what is being said… Actively listen to diverse voices especially if they don’t share your opinion which you should feel free to share as well. Find out what your team care about and try to understand their point of view. Don’t be judgemental and instead show understanding. Thank employees for their input and reassure them that all matters will be fully investigated, and mean it.
5) …but also listen to what isn’t being said. Pay attention to conversations that are being avoided. Understand why your employees are remaining silent. Try to find out what is making your team hold back by being inquisitive and setting an example. Recognise and get to the bottom of micro-aggressions.
6) Enable whistle-blowing and anonymous reporting. Don’t be afraid to allow employees to call out wrong behaviour. This is especially important in industries where safety is imperative, such as oil & gas. Encourage them to be an agent of change and to use their voices to do so and follow up with evidence that their concerns are being thoroughly investigated and appropriate action will be taken.
7) Put safeguards into place to avoid retaliation such as reaching out to whistle-blowers to see how they are, monitoring performance evaluations and providing coaching on conflict management so that employees can move forward from the incident.
8) Ensure you take appropriate action. One reason employees do not raise their concerns is because they do not believe that action will be taken. Don’t allow the process to stagnate. Have follow up meetings with the reporter and any witnesses to keep them in the loop and assure them that action has been taken.
9) Be transparent. A lack of transparency around complaints, breaching confidentiality, or overt favouritism and protection of other leaders are toxic behaviours in the workplace. Be transparent to demonstrate accountability, earn trust, preserve workplace culture and encourage future reports.
10) Criticise constructively. Avoid judgement, and critique in a way that encourages development, growth and success. Ensure your business has a culture of being constructive rather than destructive.