How HR can help employees speak truth to power

By Jake Young, CIPD Research Associate

In part one we explored speaking truth to power in relation to workplace sexual harassment. Research shows that issues are faced not only by those who wish to make their voice heard, but by those with the responsibility for making this happen. The second part of this piece aims to uncover the solutions to such problems – in particular, what can the HR professionals do to foster an environment in which sexual harassment can be spoken about freely and dealt with?

On challenge is that leaders need to acknowledge the consequences of being someone in power in an organisation. As mentioned, leaders must show humility, and understand how difficult it may be for someone to speak up about a serious issue. Similarly, while a leader’s ‘little list’ of trusted advisers can’t be erased altogether, simply being aware it exists makes it easier to understand the different labels we use to categorise people, and prevents undermining someone’s voice in the future.

We should return to Reitz and Higgins’ five key themes which are prevalent when we discuss how to facilitate speaking up effectively. This is because for each issue that individuals face when attempting to voice their concerns – conviction, risk, political and social awareness and judgement - there are ways in which leaders can help their colleagues overcome such barriers.

When dealing with individuals who lack conviction over the value of their words, leaders need to respect this, ensuring they take matters such as allegations of sexual harassment seriously, and treat employees’ words with sincerity and respect.

Acknowledging the risk an individual takes when deciding to speak up is also a desirable behaviour of a leader. This involves showing empathy with how dangerous speaking up can be – again, acknowledging their reputation. Instead of being someone with whom an employee can’t be honest, leaders need to ensure they are approachable.

Showing political awareness of the games played and cliques formed in an organisation also helps create a more open environment for discussion. Particularly in cases of sexual harassment, where young women are the most common victims, eradicating ‘boys’ clubs’ and networks of political friendships is important.

Regarding social awareness, leaders must not only understand how they label those lower than them in the organisational hierarchy, but how they are labelled. For example, what do labels such as ‘connected politically’, and ‘busy’ mean for people’s capacity to speak truth to power? Leaders must ensure the way they are labelled indicates that their role is to authentically support others, rather than simply delegate work and develop powerful networks.

Finally, when employees make the judgement to speak up despite the risk of backlash, leaders need to have the skill and time to notice this desire, and understand the different ways in which people may approach the situation.

How employees can express their voice

Once speaking up is encouraged by leaders through the behaviours above, we need to consider how it feels to be given the opportunity to speak, and what individuals can do to ensure their voice is heard. Having considered the issues around conviction, risk, political and social awareness and judgement, 3 general ideas are suggested which should be taken on board by those who wish to voice their concerns over serious matters. These are thought, who and experience:

  • Thought. The individual needs to give a great deal of time and thought to what they want to say. Because of the risk and possible backlash of speaking up, establishing a single key message to be heard is important, as is considering what type of language needs to be used.

  • Who: who needs to hear what you have to say, and who is able to do this?

  • Experience. This is a really important one, because it helps gauge the nature of an organisation’s culture. Does the individual have experience to draw on of successfully speaking up, whether this be personal or from someone else? The answer to this allows us to look at an organisation more widely, and understand whether it is the type in which speaking up is generally successful, or prohibited.

If organisations can get to the point where harassment is a topic from which people do not shy away, but instead bring to the forefront of their culture, an open dialogue will be encouraged throughout the hierarchy of power.

Empowering new cultures through effective HR

So, what can HR do to encourage the development of such cultures? Reitz and Higgins look to propose four organisational truth-telling cultures. This sees truth as linked in a circular relation with the systems of power that produce and sustain it. The two researchers look at the dichotomy of ‘power with’ and ‘power over’, while truth is examined from the contrasting views that there is one single truth or multiple, objective truths. They define a number of cultures that are useful to consider in detail:

  • A directive culture involves a singular truth, with power held by one group over another. This is termed a lion culture, in which there is a clear leader to whom people should speak up. So the quality of what is invited to be heard depends strongly upon the relationship between the powerful and those who report to them.

  • An empowering culture contains a similarly singular truth, but the authority shares power with the collective, to facilitate agency. This is termed the bees culture, where the culture serves the needs of the dominant power. While workers organise themselves in a way that effectively does this, they can exercise agency through sharing insights and speaking up. The relationship between workers and leader is key in determining how much speaking up is allowed.

  • An adjudicated culture sees the existence of multiple truths, while power is exerted over others by the dominant group. The role of authority is to arbitrate and choose between conflicting truths. This is named the owl culture – the leader is wise and trusted to make a judgement on which decision is right. This can, unfortunately, cause disparity within an organisation, where people develop a tribal loyalty to their ‘truth’ and neglect understanding the reality of others.

  • Finally, in a dialogic culture, multiple truths exist and power is shared with employees. Authority figures are tasked with creating spaces in which people can come together to explore different ways of understanding the world. Termed the starling culture, this culture does not elect an obvious leader; instead, there is constant ordering and re-ordering. The culture can organise itself without obvious hierarchy or chain of command, and is held together by collectively followed principles.

Reitz and Higgins note that each of the above presents different challenges and opportunities for an organisation. There is no perfect culture, no ‘right place’ to be. But what’s important is that members of an organisation acknowledge the reality of the culture in which they work. It can be extremely useful to work out how power and truth are perceived among those up and down the organisational hierarchy. Is power generally used to establish dominance or to enable others? Is the possibility of multiple truths highlighted, or is a single truth encouraged? This presents an opportunity for HR, who, through acknowledging the importance of these two concepts, will help allow people to better understand the mechanisms behind enabling truth to be spoken to power, and what can be done if this is being suppressed.

Read part two: How HR can help employees speak truth to power

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