DEI Club

Psychological safety

Speak IN ! Why "speaking up" doesn't work and what to encourage instead

DEI Club spoke with Laurin Mooney, founder of Speaking IN, about the problem of silence in organizations and the value of creating an organizational culture where people feel safe and motivated to "speak in". We delve into the core of the challenge and touch upon psychological safety and the importance of actively inviting diverse perspectives even in situations when we may not be inclined to do so.

Laurin Mooney is on a mission to help leaders address the challenge that we all know exists but remains largely unspoken and unresolved: many employees withhold critical knowledge and valuable perspectives because they feel it is unsafe, unwelcome or futile. This dynamic leaves organizations powerless to learn what they need to know to succeed in a complex and rapidly changing environment. 

What does research tell us about the effectiveness of encouraging employees to speak up in organizations? 

Laurin: Research indicates that promoting a "speak up" culture as a strategy to unlock knowledge flow and combat silence is highly ineffective. In fact, it's considered one of the least effective approaches when companies have to deal with ambiguous situations – which is a frequent challenge in a VUCA world.

My interest in this field was sparked by two significant research studies: 

  1. A study from 2016 (1) showed that healthcare workers perceived open communication as unsafe and ineffective. Those who were aware of problems often refrained from speaking up, or if they did, their concerns were ignored. 
  2. Another study (2) highlighted that the organizational cost of employees not speaking up is very significant. It furthermore concluded that 43% of respondents said they had wasted more than two weeks ruminating over unresolved issues, and that only 1% felt confident voicing concerns during critical moments. 

Both these findings shed light on the lack of confidence people feel when it comes to speaking up.

Why are organizations not paying attention to this data or this problem? 

Laurin: The main problem is that organizations simply don't know that there is an alternative to the "speak up" doctrine. It is deeply ingrained in organizational and managerial best practices. Because no one challenges status quo, companies continue to refine the "speak up" approach and rely on passive and vague policies that urge employees to speak up when they perceive a problem. 

However, it will never work, because it is foundationally flawed and fails to align with the nature and needs of human beings and the complexities of organizational systems. The prevailing approach focuses on reminding employees to speak up, without addressing the fundamental flaws in the “speak up” strategy.

Can you elaborate on the flaws of the "speak up" culture in complex systems? 

Laurin: Certainly. In complex systems, such as modern organizations, the traditional "speak up" culture falls short. Maybe a policy or poster has been put out, encouraging employees to “speak up” if they see a problem; "If you see something, say something. – We have an open-door policy.” 

I have identified “five flaws” in the current approach:

1) It focuses narrowly on reporting accidents or mistakes that deviate from “pre-set expectations”.

2) The strategy targets the wrong individuals and repeatedly emphasizes the same message to them.

3) It fails to address the root causes of silence and doesn't make individuals feel safer despite repeated requests to speak up. It neglects the hierarchical context in which they operate.

4) The language used is unhelpful and unhealthy, as it reinforces hierarchical command rather than fostering open communication.

5) It has a feeling of unfairness: The strategy places the entire responsibility for upward knowledge flow on those with less power, while those in positions of greater power believe that issuing the mandate absolves them of any accountability.

Management appears to be open to feedback or communication from employees but only in specific situations - when their ambitious or 'amazing' plans encounter failure or when individual employees face personal failures. Few seem to take the time to address the underlying question: Does this approach truly foster an environment where diverse perspectives are actively sought and valued? 

This is important because in a complex system like knowledge work, three crucial elements are needed:

1) Open knowledge flow: This requires creating safety in the environment.

2) Effective sense-making: As things are constantly unclear, diverse perspectives are essential.

3) Effective decision-making in uncertainty: The ability to tap quickly into available expertise.

On the people-side, hierarchies tend to favour the selection and advancement of over-confident leaders. Simultaneously, individuals often gravitate towards silence as a result of safety concerns. It is intrinsic for us to seek safety in providing for our families, maintaining job security, and feeling a sense of belonging. However, this fear of jeopardizing our safety and well-being by sharing knowledge can impede our full potential to contribute effectively.

It's not anyone's fault; there simply hasn't been another strategy or model available. The speak up strategy has become the norm, hindering our progress. Despite everyone's awareness of its presence, it continues to impede our forward movement.

We need a new strategy – one that actively encourages and values contributions and makes it safe for people to share. People are in general eager to contribute, and organizations need the contributions of their employees.

What is the essence of the "Speaking IN" approach you advocate for?

Laurin: The "Speaking IN" approach involves intentionally including, inviting, and appreciating diverse perspectives when gathering around a purpose in a dynamic work environment: 

  • The intentionality lies in recognizing that these conversations wouldn't be necessary if these things naturally occurred, and it involves navigating against power dynamics.
  • Inclusion means ensuring the right people are at the table, considering those who will be impacted by our actions and those with relevant expertise.
  • The act of inviting involves specific questions from leaders, and it addresses reducing fear in real-time during the invitation process.
  • Appreciation entails active listening, both verbal and non-verbal, and how leaders handle the valuable knowledge they receive even if it's not what we wanted to hear. As leaders, we must embrace the knowledge, even when it's unpleasant, and view it as an opportunity for growth.

To foster a "Speak IN" culture, leaders must first make room for diverse perspectives in their interactions. Then, they can invite and appreciate others' contributions. By communicating their openness to input and expressing the expectation for different views, leaders create an environment that values diverse perspectives and proactively seeks them.

By encouraging a Speaking IN culture organizations can “heal from the inside-out” - what do you mean by that?

Laurin: In a VUCA world amidst constant change and complexity, the true source of power in organizations lies in the ability to learn and adapt and foster a shift from an individualistic "me" mindset to a collective "we" mindset. 

Ultimately, this transformation will benefit both business and people alike. By unlocking the power of learning, we can address the long-standing issues that have hindered progress, thereby healing ourselves from within.

Healing from the inside-out entails recognizing that when organizations face challenges, the healing must occur by the organization itself. However, we often bring in external groups (consultants, etc.) to diagnose and remedy the issues without truly understanding the underlying trust dynamics. If we instead acknowledge that the knowledge needed for healing lies within the system itself and create a safe environment to foster open sharing, several benefits emerge:

  • It fosters a sense of belonging and contribution.
  • It allows for accounting for local variations and tailoring solutions to specific contexts.

To encourage open expression, leaders can take practical steps:

  • Make space for diverse perspectives and self-reflect on interactions. Are you allowing enough time for diverse voices to be heard? Look at your interactions; did I just talk 97% of the time in this meeting? How am I going to have diverse perspectives if I don’t leave any time for them?
  • Introspect. What is my perception of diverse perspectives? Your perception will ultimately influence all your behaviors. Do you view them as a threat, discard them, or see them as a valuable gift? We often claim to want diversity, but when it challenges our views, we may resist it. Embracing diverse perspectives is critical for growth and success, even through the lens of finances or any other aspect of business.
  • Make it clear that you are open to learning from others – not just by having an open door but in every interaction. Establish an environment that fosters the exchange of critical information and promotes knowledge sharing.

By adopting the "Speaking IN" model, leaders signal their openness to input. For instance, instead of simply asking for concerns, they can express a genuine desire to hear diverse perspectives upfront. This clarity eliminates uncertainty and builds trust, making people more willing to share their insights.

A study by Amy Edmonson from 2009 (3) suggests that leader inclusiveness, where leaders invite and appreciate others' contributions, can counteract hierarchical dynamics and overcome inhibiting effects.

It’s a mindset shift for many leaders and requires specific leadership competencies. Leaders must cultivate situational humility, curiosity, and respect. These attitudes are essential for creating a safe and inclusive environment that values diverse perspectives and encourages "speaking IN". 






(1) Morrow, K. J., Gustavson, A. M., & Jones, J. (2016). Speaking up behaviours (safety voices) of healthcare workers: A metasynthesis of qualitative research studies. International Journal of Nursing Studies. 

(2) Costly Conversations: How Lack of Communication is Costing Organizations Thousands in Revenue

(3) Nembhard, I. M., & Edmondson, A. C. (2009). Making it safe: The effects of leader inclusiveness and professional status on psychological safety and improvement efforts in health care teams. In Springer eBooks (pp. 77–105)