What Are You Not Prepared To Say?

Leonie Cutts

To do nothing is within the power of all men.

Samuel Johnson

A patient lay on the operating table, desperately in need of the life saving surgery. He was about to have his cancer ridden kidney removed. The surgeon carefully removed the kidney while the medical student observed. The medical student had studied this patient and knew his case intimately. He was acutely aware that the kidney the surgeon was about to remove was the wrong one. He said nothing. The patient died a short time after.

With the benefit of hindsight we may be able to sit back and judge, but the actions of the medical student happen in our organisations every day. They may not always be life and death moments, but not speaking out or speaking up happens daily and it can be insidious, costly and potentially our downfall.

In surveys of European and American executives, fully 85 percent of them acknowledged that they had issues or concerns at work that they were afraid to raise.

Margaret Heffernan

What do we know, but do not say?

A good friend of mine, at a senior level in a large corporation, described it beautifully when she said: “It’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes – everybody can see what is wrong, but nobody is prepared to be the one to call it.”

So, why don’t we speak up?

There are possibly as many reasons we don’t speak out as there are people.  We know that factors, such as our inclination to challenge authority, plays a role. Professor Geert Hofstede, in his research on how values in the workplace are influenced by culture, identified the Power Distance Indicator, or PDI. The PDI is a measure of our relationship with authority and how it impacts our inclination to challenge authority, or to speak up.

Researchers in behavioural economics have identified the  status quo bias, our natural tendency to go with the flow or avoid change. It is easier to stay as we are than to rock the boat and make a change. Sometimes part of going with the flow is that we don’t even notice what we should be speaking up about, it is just the way we do things.

How do we help people speak up and speak out?

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell carefully describes Korean Airlines turnaround from being an airline with the worst safety record, to one of the best. The turnaround happened, not because they worked on the technical skill of the pilots, but because they worked on what was essentially a cultural legacy – their communication.

An outsider from Delta airlines, David Greenberg, was brought in to run their flight operations. In the crew resource manager training the focus was helping copilots challenge the pilot. If they saw an error of judgement by the pilot they were given 3 ways to state this clearly to the pilot. If the pilot did not respond or change course in any of the requests, the fourth step was to take control of the plane. That’s commitment to speaking out – and it has saved lives.

Some critical steps need to be in place to create a culture of speaking out:

Awareness: Should I speak out? The national campaign in the US, If you see something, say something raises the public awareness of the indicators of terrorism, and encourages people to speak up.  Australian schools have Bullying, No Way!, an anti bullying awareness and education campaign to help make our schools a safe place. Sometimes, we just need to be told it’s OK to say something, and that our voice will be heard. It’s not just our right to speak up, it’s our responsibility.

Permission to speak: Can I speak out? Creating a safe and supportive environment where it is OK to speak up and speak out is critical. Organisations sometimes say they are open and honest, but the behaviour is very different.  How will your voice be heard?  Will it open a dialogue for further discussion, or be shut down?

A way to clearly speak out: How can I speak out? Speaking out is hard, especially if you are disagreeing with the actions of someone in authority. Being given a way to clearly speak out can be useful.  In the Korean crew training, co pilots were given very clear instructions on how to speak up:

1. Captain, I’m concerned about…

2. Captain, I’m uncomfortable with..

3. Captain, I believe the situation is unsafe…

4. Take over control

Describing the 4 steps for copilots to highlight their concerns about an error of judgement. From Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell

A culture of learning: The benefits of speaking out How we respond to mistakes is important. Being able to be open about mistakes means an individual and an organisation can learn from it and move on.

Brian Goldman, in his TED talk Doctors Make Mistakes, acknowledges that mistakes are inevitable. He reinforces the need to redefine the culture of medicine by sharing mistakes, pointing out mistakes in a loving and supportive way and striving to learn from them. This removes the shame that is often felt by the individual making the mistake and helps everyone grow and learn.

What are the underlying rules about speaking up and speaking out in your organisation? What is the cost of you not speaking up?


Leonie Cutts

Co-founder of CCS Corporation, co-developer of the CCS, facilitator and coach. Leonie is passionate about bringing people together for connection and growth in both their personal and professional lives.

1 Comment

  1. Susan on 19 November 2015 at 12:16 am

    Excellent and empowering!