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Cover of Speak Up Culture

How to create a culture where employees feel free to speak up

In his new book, Stephen Shedletzky highlights the importance of creating an environment where staff feel safe to express themselves—and where they are actually heard

Cover of Speak Up CultureSpeak Up Culture is a should-read for anyone who wishes to lead—whether they have the formal title or not (Image provided)

While many leaders may know the value of listening to their staff, few actually know how to implement a culture where those voices are truly heard. Yet those who do end up creating safer, more innovative and better-performing environments than their peers.

In a new book, coach and keynote speaker Stephen Shedletzky (aka Shed) draws upon his considerable experience delivering workshops, leading people and teams and executive coaching development programs around the world not only to explain the importance of fostering an environment where employees can speak up, but also to lay out the building blocks leaders need to create one.

The book, Speak-Up Culture: When Leaders Truly Listen, People Step Up, is to be released October 3, 2023.

CPA Canada spoke to Stephen Shedletzky to explore his views on leadership and the importance of creating and nurturing a speak-up culture.

CPA CANADA: How do you define a speak-up culture?
Stephen Shedletzky (Shed): A speak-up culture is one in which people feel both it is both safe and worth it to share their ideas, concerns, disagreements and mistakes without fear of being ignored or punished.

It is not a licence to throw tact, awareness and emotional intelligence out the window. Sometimes leaders will say they have a speak-up culture, but the question remains, what is the quality of what people are sharing and how vulnerable are they actually being?

Of all people, comedian Craig Ferguson is credited for officering these three questions to ask yourself before speaking up:

  1. Does it need to be said?
  2. Does it need to be said by me?
  3. Does it need to be said now?

A true speak-up culture is also about the quality of the voice, and not just hearing the same voices repeatedly. Even at times when someone’s feedback might be inappropriate in the way of manner or timing, leaders in a speak-up culture should be kind enough to give feedback, reward the behaviour, and provide valid input on what they can do better next time.

Stephen ShedletzkyStephen Shedletzky says that teams that are part of a speak-up culture are safer, healthier and far more productive and innovative than those that are not (Photo provided)

CPA CANADA: What drove you to specialize in this subject area?
Shed: I grew up with a speech impediment, so I have lived the experience of being voiceless, having something to say but lacking the ability and confidence to do it. Over the span of my career, I’ve also been on teams that are part of a speak-up culture and those that aren’t. I far prefer the former. They are safer, healthier and far more productive and innovative.

CPA CANADA: How significant a role do leaders play in employees’ psychological well-being?
Shed: People with influence and authority have a significant impact on our productivity and well-being. Dr. Casey Chosewood at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that our relationship with our boss has more impact than our doctor or therapist and is on par with our relationship with our life partners.

Clearly, those who wish to lead should proceed with care and caution as leadership is a life-feeding or life-depleting role.

CPA Canada: What makes a good leader?
Shed: Their behaviour! Leaders ought to be chosen based on the way they behave. Being a leader by title might mean you have the authority, but the true test is, do people follow you? I have seen plenty of people who have the title but do not lead, and others who don’t have the title but do lead. Leaders exude empathy and compassion. They serve others and are authentic, decisive and accountable.

Sometimes leaders will say they have a speak-up culture, but the question remains, what is the quality of what people are sharing and how vulnerable are they actually being?

CPA CANADA: Why is a speak-up culture important in today’s work environment?
Shed: While the idea that a healthy culture drives better business results has held true for decades, leaders must realize that the more senior they get in an organization, the further away they can get from the truth. When team members speak up we are able to make better, more grounded decisions. We are also now at a point where more boomers are exiting the workforce. Those who are stepping into their roles are often first-time leaders who in many cases are not adequately prepared, trained or supported.

CPA CANADA: Does speaking up always have to be both safe and worth it?
Shed: It’s most effective in creating positive and meaningful change if it’s both safe and worth it to speak up. The opposite would be having cultures full of both fear and apathy.

If you feel it’s safe to speak up but not worth it—either due to bureaucracy, systemic issues, or a change in habit that’s simply too difficult to make—you may speak but it’s unlikely to create any meaningful change.

When it isn’t safe but it’s worth it, that’s where people get courageous. Whistleblowers are the best example of people who don’t have psychological safety but feel what they have to say is worth risking themselves, their reputation, and in some cases their jobs.

There are plenty of examples where not having a speak-up culture proved disastrous, including the Boeing 737 MAX tragedies that resulted in two plane crashes and 346 lives lost, or more recently the Titan submersible disaster where two former OceanGate employees separately voiced similar safety concerns about the thickness of the hull, but found their voices dismissed.

CPA CANADA: Can a successful speak-up culture impact financial and reputational performance?
Shed: The short answer is yes. One study found that trustworthy companies are 2.5 times better performing than low trust companies.

For example, after DICK’s Sporting Goods found that the shooter at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida had purchased a shotgun at their store, their CEO, Ed Stack, announced a series of gun sale restrictions at their stores. Despite protests, and an immediate 3.1 per cent drop in sales in the first fiscal year, sales later increased by 4.7 per cent year over year and the stock price rose 13 per cent.

When Alan Mulally took over as Ford Motor Company’s CEO he encouraged his leaders to speak openly about their concerns with the company following years of dismal performance numbers. He expected employees to give truthful reports, not just positive ones. Ford returned to profitability and became the only U.S. car manufacturer to avoid a government bailout following the 2008 stock market crash.

CPA CANADA: Who should be involved?
Shed: Anyone who wishes to lead, whether formal leaders or those who don’t yet have the title but wish to behave as a leader. Of course, leadership trickles down, but those in the middle of organizations play a huge role as well. Middle managers are the only ones in an organization who have multidirectional influence. They can influence up, side-to-side and down.

My advice is to find the innovators and early adopters; seek out the cultural champions who have multidirectional influence with their leaders, their peers and their teams; and give them the tools they need so others will follow.

CPA CANADA: How do you build a speak-up culture?
Shed: The most important two things you can do are: let people know you value their perspective, especially if they are sharing bad news, and that you hear what they are saying.

A speak-up culture is not a linear thing where you follow steps and once you do, you arrive at a state where you have achieved it. It is an infinite learning process that requires regular assessments. Even if you have a speak-up culture already, that does not give you permission to take your foot off the gas. Leaders encourage and reward people for speaking up. They make it safe and worth it to do time and time again.


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