Why you need to encourage your team to SPEAK UP

Once upon a time, in a faraway land there was a tiny town. In that tiny town was a supermarket. In that supermarket was a young girl who became a slave to the deli meat slicer.

That young girl was me. I was 15-years-old at the time I started my casual job at the deli at the local supermarket. Being a deli-chick, I spent a lot of time at the slicer. You could say the slicer was the main hazard in my work area. I was trained by a couple of senior staff members. They showed me how to clean the slicer “properly”. I remember it vividly. They alerted me to the fact that the shavings of the meat build up behind the guard of the slicer. So, to ensure that it was cleaned properly, I had to remove the guard; turn the slicer on; and hold the cloth on the blade whilst it was rotating (very fast… at a pace that would remove your hand if you made a wrong move).

I remember putting on a brave face and agreeing to clean it that way, knowing all well that it had the potential to cut my fingers off. On the inside I was feeling something like this…


So, why didn’t I SPEAK UP?

I didn’t want to seem incompetent, nor did I want to question those with seniority.  I remember thinking, “maybe I can clean it without removing the guard”.  However, I was too nervous at the thought that they’d catch me out and I’d get blamed for not doing my job “properly”.

Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management, Harvard Business School, provides reasons as to why individuals may be reluctant to SPEAK UP and ask questions at work.  The reasons include the fear of being perceived by others as;

  • Ignorant – I’m probably expected to already know this, so I won’t ask;

  • Incompetent – If I attempt it and make a mistake, It’ll look like I don’t know what I’m doing;

  • Negative – I don’t want to give feedback and look like the bad guy;

The other reason Amy Edmondson identifies why an individual may not voice questions, is to avoid disrupting or imposing upon others.

In a recent case heard by the Court of Appeal in Brisbane, retail giant Woolies was ordered to pay an injured worker more than $230,000. The Court ruled that the warehouse demands placed on workers exacerbated a pre-existing shoulder injury.

In his ruling, Justice Phillip Morrison explained that workers at the centre were expected to meet performance targets and the injured worker “became very concerned about achieving 100 per cent. He was unable to achieve it for some time. Because he was a casual worker he feared that should he not achieve 100 per cent he would lose his job. That was not an unreasonable fear.”

Due to injured workers’ fears of losing his job, he felt compelled to work faster and skip his breaks. Justice Morrison also stated “Because of Mr Berhane’s concern about the system and his job security, it was likely he took short cuts such as leaning across a pallet rather than walking around it, or carrying more than one item. Other workers did exactly that.”

In this case, the worker did not feel comfortable speaking up about his concerns in fear of losing his job. As a result of his fear, the worker felt compelled to perform the work in an unsafe way. The consequences were bad for both the worker and the organisation.

Encouraging your team to speak up can have huge benefits to individuals and the organisation.  Amy Edmondson, through her research has identified that the best performing teams are those that are psychologically safe. A Psychologically Safe workplace is one where team members feel safe to take interpersonal risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.

RUOK? define a “psychologically safe” workplace as one that is characterised by a climate of interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people feel comfortable being themselves to make mistakes or take risks in their work.

Creating a psychological safe workplace can result in:

  • A happier place to work;

  • Less absenteeism, presenteeism and workers’ compensation claims; and

  • Increased productivity

It’s a win-win situation!

Are you cultivating a culture of SPEAKING UP?