Russell Parkinson, Head of Office and Strategy at the National Guardian’s Office, highlights the importance of encouraging staff to speak up and lists ways in which organisations can take action
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“We must empower the workforce to speak up”.
I hear that a lot. I appreciate the sentiment but is that really what is needed? Even in situations where bad things are happening and the culture is one where this is accepted or just not noticed anymore, there is evidence that NHS workers are speaking up. People do not need to be empowered to do so.
There are two problems the National Guardian’s Office and the network of Freedom to Speak Up Guardians encounter every day and empowerment is not one of them.
Perhaps the biggest problem we see is workers not speaking up because they don’t see the point. They don’t feel listened to and don’t see any positive action taken when they do speak up. They may be empowered but why would they bother?
The second problem is perhaps more ingrained and difficult to quantify. It is what goes on in our heads.
When we see something that needs to change or that is clearly wrong, first, we are faced with a decision about whether we should say anything at all. Why wouldn’t we? Well, we might doubt ourselves or feel that what we say is not valued. We also struggle with real or imagined hierarchies and boundaries that tell us that it just isn’t our place to say anything.
Second, if we do get past that point, we are faced with the question of who to speak to. Surely, we could speak to anyone. Well, no. We habitually go to someone we trust and believe in. We all make judgements about our colleagues and, as people, we all bring parts of ourselves into the workplace that people make judgements about. That includes things we can’t do anything about, such as our seniority, profession, gender or age. But it also includes things we can control, including how we respond when someone has made the brave decision to speak up. All of these things feed into the decision that is made at that crucial moment: “Do I trust this person or not?”
This month is “Speak Up Month”; a yearly initiative that the National Guardian’s Office leads and coordinates but is very much owned by the 700+ Freedom to Speak Up Guardians that are working every day to make speaking up business as usual. You will see much activity on social media and, hopefully, a whole range of initiatives and communications in your own places of work. Please take part! Why? Every story we tell, and every message we send that says that it is OK to speak up, in fact it is encouraged, celebrated even, helps with that first crucial decision. It shows that there is a point to speaking up, it is valued, and it does make a difference.
But what about that harder aspect of the decision making process – overcoming those very human barriers that mean that it can be hard to speak up to those who are more senior, or in a different profession, or of a different gender, or those who we just don’t feel we can relate to for some reason? Well, you can make it easier! There are three things you can do about that right now.
First, when someone does speak up to you, say “thank you”. That sounds simple and it is easily forgotten but it can completely change the speaking up dynamic. A problem is suddenly received as a gift. It might not always feel like that in the moment of course! But even if a difficult issue does land in your lap you will ultimately be grateful that the matter has come to light and you have the opportunity to do something about it.
Second, take action about what is being said and include the person speaking up to you insofar as you can.
Third, make sure you provide feedback on what happens as a result. That final action should not only bring closure to the person who has spoken up but will slowly chip away at that most significant barrier to speaking up – it will show that things do change as a result.
One last thing, if you have a Freedom to Speak Up Guardian in your organisation, please say ‘hello’ and thank them. They work hard every day to support their colleagues and make a difference. If your organisation doesn’t have a Freedom to Speak Up Guardian, perhaps you should think about getting one. They aren’t the final solution but have proven to be a very significant and valued step in the journey towards making speaking up business as usual.