Bro-ken speech? Speaking up and speaking out

Speaking-up is hard to do. In a research survey conducted by Sean Martin, Associate Professor at the Carroll School of Management, and presented at Ethics By Design, respondents identified speaking up about ethical issues as the scariest form of “employee voice” in organizations (even more so than speaking up to point out problems). If you’ve ever felt that pain in your gut about giving bad news to your boss, you likely share this sentiment. 

Raising ethical issues requires courage compared to other forms of workplace interactions, as shown in research by James Detert – people’s self-preservation instincts drive their decision to stay silent, even if it’s an issue the company could perceive as one that improves its processes, products or procedures. Research by Professors Milliken (NYU Stern), Morrison and Hewlin (NYU Stern) also shows that employees are likely to be silent because they fear being labeled a troublemaker by their colleagues, and thus damaging valued business relationships. Surprisingly, retaliation in the form of losing one’s job or being passed up for a promotion is at the bottom of the list of reasons to stay silent.  

Given this fear, it’s no surprise that corporations struggle to change their internal culture, particularly when the issues are cultural transgressions that subtly create imbalances in the workplace. 

Sam Polk’s recent piece in the NYT Sunday Review, How Wall Street Bro Talk Keeps Women Down, brings an impassioned voice to the discussion of Wall Street culture, demonstrating the difficulties of being embedded in a work culture at odds with your own values. Polk uses personal examples from his career to illustrate how “Bro Talk” maintains gender inequity in investment banking and identifies conformity as a driving factor for men who stand-by and listen as their colleagues objectify and demean women, both publicly and privately. Watch The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short for a good (albeit exaggerated) sense of the male dominated, loyalty-driven culture that dominates many firms.

Polk humbly recalls the difficulty of defending his own values when they went against the prevailing workplace environment (and the benefits to his paycheck). His regret about staying silent exemplifies the emotional complexity of the decision to speak-up. He also highlights a paradox of the institutionalized approaches to improve the ethics of an organization, in this context to promote diversity & inclusion:

“The promulgation of diversity committees […and training] suggests that there is some institutional acknowledgement of this sexism.  Yet, these things have resulted in little change.  What we need is something simpler:  individuals speaking up and challenging norms, especially when it’s uncomfortable”

While employer-driven, top-down approaches to addressing cultural misdeeds are necessary, they may not be sufficient to address everyday norms.  As Elizabeth Morrison, Professor of Management and Organizations at NYU Stern, described at Ethics by Design, the practices that some companies instill to encourage employee participation, such as anonymous hotlines and suggestion boxes, don’t address the underlying psychological tendencies for employees to just go with the flow and to avoid the risks associated with challenging colleagues’ statements or points of view.   

How can ethical leaders encourage their employees to speak-up?  The key is to understand the circumstances in which people are more likely to take an active, vocal role in improving their workplace, and designing a corporate culture that will encourage such behaviors.  Not an easy task – but one that will reap long-term rewards.

What is also emerging in the research is that supervisory leadership is vital for encouraging norms, even more so than executive “tone at the top”.  Ethical leadership involves modeling behaviors that you want your employees to demonstrate, and openly discussing ethical issues with your team.  It requires anticipating and preventing would-be conflicts from flaring up.  And it includes expressing humility about your own fallible traits, as Polk has done in his piece, and building trust and genuine receptiveness to input from your employees.   

The decision to speak out in uncomfortable situations is delicate and fraught with concern over potential personal costs. Your employees are more likely to weigh the impact it will have on whether they will be invited out for drinks with their team the next day, rather than the long-term damage their silence will have on the firm’s business culture and bottom line.

Courageous leaders are necessary to nudge cultures in the right direction and serve as allies to people looking for an outlet to speak-up.

Further Reading:

Whistle Blowing / Internal Reporting [research page]

Speak Up Culture Plenary Video from Ethics By Design