Effective listening and speaking up

Megan Reitz and John Higgins' work looks at the organisational dynamics which underpin effective speaking and listening up. They have conducted research with over 4,000 people across different industries, including over 1,300 UK health and social care employees.

They have developed a framework and supporting resources which helps individuals and teams to reflect on their own context and think more carefully about the opportunities and risks associated with speaking up at work. Here we share some of the key insights from their work and signpost to more information.

"Say what needs to be said..."

A key finding from their research is that unspoken assumptions about power and authority within organisations can have a huge impact on what's spoken about and what's heard. Often it's those assumptions that lead us into certain behavioural habits or 'traps' which undermine our best intentions and can hold us back when it comes to speaking up at work.

They identify some speak up 'traps' to guard against:

Self-doubt or 'imposter syndrome' can stop us from believing our instinct that something needs changing, particularly if we're new in post or in an unfamiliar situation.

We might tell ourselves that 'it's not our responsibility', or that 'everybody knows about this, so what's the point?'

In their research they highlight a story they heard from a senior NHS clinician who decided it wasn't up to him to give a colleague feedback on his behaviour 30 years ago when they were junior doctors. The clinician now found himself having to run a misconduct hearing about his colleague who tearfully claimed that he didn't realise his behaviour was considered bullying. No one, over 30 years, had ever told him.

Even when we do speak out, our concerns can be lost in translation because we don't think about how the other person might perceive the issue. Successful speaking up requires us to put ourselves in the other person's shoes, so that we can land the message in the most effective way.

They suggest reflecting on the following questions to help you when speaking up:

1. Why

Why examines the purpose behind you speaking up. What outcome are you seeking? What's your positive intention? What would happen if you didn't say anything?

2. Who

Who identifies the right person/people to speak to and whether it's you that's best placed to speak up. Who's willing to listen to you and support you? Should you speak up alone, should someone else, or is it better to do it together as allies?

3. Where

Where identifies the location that would be most helpful to speaking up and being heard. Is this best done via email, on a virtual platform, or face-to-face? In a formal meeting or over coffee? Also think about where works best for the other person?

4. When

When identifies when the other person can best hear you. Timing is what makes or breaks a joke. The same applies for speaking up. Is the issue urgent? When will you be at your best speaking up? Do you need to cool off? When is the other person open to hearing what you have to say?

5. What

What refers to the precise words and signals you should use to get your message across. It requires you to consider the cultural context. Given your understanding of the other person's context, personality and perspective, what signals should you send verbally and non-verbally and what should you avoid?

Find out more about Reitz and Higgins' advice on speaking up:

  1. Speaking Truth to Power - Why do we speak up or stay silent: Introducing the TRUTH framework (3 minute video)
  2. Speaking Truth to power- How to speak up and listen up (2.5 minute video)
  3. Speaking truth to power at work: How we silence ourselves and others Reitz, Nilsson, Day and Higgins (2019)

"Hear what needs to be heard..."

The research found that effective speaking up cultures can only flourish if those who speak up are listened to. But it takes collective and ongoing work to create supportive environments where everyone feels invited and comfortable to speak up in the first place.

They identify some listen up 'traps' to guard against:

We forget how scary we might be to others! And the research shows that we often have an inflated idea of how easy it is for others to talk to us. This is especially true the more we progress upwards through our careers.

We inadvertently send out the wrong 'signals'. For example, running around from one job to the next creates the impression that we're far too busy to support anyone else with an issue.

We might fail to recognise our own assumptions and unspoken biases about whose opinion 'counts', or what sorts of data we pay attention to more readily. And which we are largely 'deaf' to, for example financial data, data about people or emotions.

Find out more about Reitz and Higgins' advice on listening up:

  1. Speaking Truth to Power - How do we listen effectively to others? (3 minute video)
  2. Managers, you're more intimidating than you think, Reitz and Higgins (2019)]
  3. How your power silences truth (15.5 minute TED talk)

Professor Megan Reitz (@MeganReitz1) is Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Hult Ashridge Business School. John Higgins is Research Director at Gameshift.

The ideas on this page are explored in more depth in their recently published book: Reitz, M., Higgins, J. (2019) Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard. London: Financial Times Publishing.