Not everyone wants to speak at work. Most people in fact, stay silent. Of course, they don’t necessarily see it this way — they’re busy working, meeting co-workers, suppliers and clients, delivering on projects. Naturally, these activities require them to talk. But what about speaking up? Speaking their mind about processes that aren’t fit for purpose, that are hindrance rather than help? Challenging authority when it may be needed? Or drawing attention to problems, until those problems are solved?

Addressing his “troops” one day, I recall a former manager saying, “[what is] most important? Order and discipline. That’s what I need from you.”

A chill had gone down my spine. I glanced around me, looking for telltale signs of disagreement from the group. Only there weren’t any. The colleague standing next to me seemed completely unmoved, just nodding. As with everything else, she was fine, and why wouldn’t she be? After all, the boss was always right.

Armies of silent, compliant workers are, or would seem to be, in the best interest of companies. At the end of the day, strategies must be executed. Operational excellence requires precision, reproducibility and yes — discipline. This rings true particularly in highly regulated environments, where adherence to laws and good manufacturing practices, for example, are simply mandatory.

Corporate rules, workplace culture and basic social norms restrain dissent, for the sake of our collective efficiency. But in recent years, to preempt the threat of disruption, organisations have introduced notions like “challenging the status quo” and “acting for change”, even down to rethinking performance evaluation systems. Yet in reality, how well is challenge actually tolerated? With manager-driven evaluations acting as filters, in corporate cultures that reward sameness, how fast do change-makers progress through the ranks of an organisation? How much space for impact does the organisation provide them with? From what I have seen, not much. Raising your voice comes with risk, makes you an outsider and slows down your career. Most workers understand this all too well and so just shut up.

The prevailing image of an organisation is that of a well-oiled machine, where friction and risks have to be reduced to a minimum. Unfettered, people’s voices can interfere with the machine’s orderly functioning.

Yet, this view is in fact detrimental to performance, agility and innovation. Organisations are living systems, not machines. The corporate ecosystem must be animated and vibrant enough so that ideas emerge and problem-solving can happen at anytime and come from anywhere in the organisation. But how can we champion this? I have some thoughts:

  • Radically increase the diversity of viewpoints in decision-making structures or opportunities to participate;
  • Balance management filters — develop cross-layer communications and projects; anonymise/ randomise selection of employees for various opportunities; promote volunteerism;
  • Ask people more often what they think, and give them more power to act; restore balance between oversight and trust, by increasing the latter;
  • Coach managers so they understand that their roles are shifting from command-and-control to inspire-and-coach, and intentionally highlight and reward those who do so, to encourage and trigger more of this behaviour;
  • Actively invest in social technologies, which can serve as strong enablers of all of this.

(Re)building trust that has been eroded, sometimes for decades by lack of focus or self-serving leadership, is one of the critical challenges confronting organisations today. It is hard, especially since this isn’t something that can simply be “rolled out” as standard corporate programmes are.

But perhaps the hardest thing to change in a corporate context is the individual assumptions of what is right and wrong in the workplace. An anxious colleague once told me: “You can’t challenge a company’s decision!” Well, yes I can. If I am aware that a decision is based on incomplete or outdated information, that it is potentially harmful for the company or its customers, then actually, I should. To abide by authority and refrain from speaking up may still be the “safest” choice individually, but this would be a big disservice to an organisation and ultimately how well it might serve its mission. Let’s use our voice and change that!

By Céline Schillinger, Head, Quality Innovation & Engagement, Sanofi Pasteur

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