Getting People to Speak Up at Work

One of the greatest challenges to a high performing organization comes from within, and it may not be what you think.

It’s getting colleagues to actually communicate with each other: to robustly and constructively share their points-of-view, ideas, recommendations, customer input, concerns and dissents. Publicly. In real time. So the issue or topic can be worked, optimized and the business driven forward. To give participants and decision-makers a deeper, wider, overall better understanding and perspective. To help the organization win in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen enough, and there are many reasons, such as:

  • Shooting the Messenger. It still happens. The bearer of tough, objective news or input gets tarnished. Nobody wants to be that person, and so the input is withheld.
  • Fear of Alternate Views/Contradiction. When the conversation includes people who hold more senior roles, other members of the team may feel uncomfortable to say something that differs from what the more senior person said and/or is thought to believe or want. Those who directly report to such leaders can also be in a difficult situation because they don’t want to embarrass or put their boss in a publicly tough spot.
  • Language Proficiency. Many companies have international colleagues whose first language is not English. Even when their English language capabilities are strong, there is sometimes an uncomfortableness to talk in English, which holds them back from engaging. If their English is a struggle, it’s worse.
  • Lack of Confidence. Sometimes, colleagues just lack the confidence or experience to speak up.

5 Action Steps for Improvement

  1. Be Authentic. Actions create the greatest impact, and colleagues watch very carefully for actual behavior versus pontification. Talk is cheap, so back it up with behavior.
  2. Start with Your Own Team. Set expectations and create an open, collaborative environment. For example, from day one I tell my global teams that I expect and want their active participation. I specifically tell them it’s okay to have a different view than mine and they can constructively challenge my thinking. Of course, they have to provide their rationale. That’s how we get better and make the best decisions. A key part of that is asking them to share their views as much as possible with specific recommendations. For this to really sink in though, there have to be times when the leader changes their mind and/or adopts an alternate idea or point of view.
  3. Encourage Action. Instill an environment in which everyone, direct reports and cross-functional colleagues, participates with an action mindset. Get in the habit of using this simple question: What do you want to do and why? Apply the same for yourself, too!
  4. Invite Participation. Similar to a teacher in a classroom, if the group seems reticent or certain people are not contributing, call on them in a positive, encouraging tone: “Susan, you’ve looked at this issue. What do you think?”
  5. Eliminate Fear. Leaders (and participants) at all levels should foster and ensure an environment in which colleagues are comfortable to speak their mind without fearing they will get in trouble. Don’t shoot the messenger. Don’t crush alternate views and dissent. Overall, be positive and encouraging, yet direct. Further, don’t be afraid of anyone saying “I don’t know.” It’s better than guessing or bullshitting. However, set the expectation that the answer and/or recommended action step is coming soon!

Inspiration Example

Here’s some inspiration to help you get started and/or to help you visualize the type of environment you’d like to create.

The United States Department of State, the diplomatic arm of America, has a mechanism called the Dissent Channel. It’s a formal policy, a bit of insurance or a backstop to ensure multiple points-of-view are put on the table. A timely reply is required. Check out these essential components:

  • Employees should “be able to express dissenting or alternative views on substantive issues of policy, in a manner which ensures serious, high-level review and response.”
  • Objective of “facilitating open, creative, and uncensored dialogue on substantive foreign policy issues.”
  • “Responsibility to foster an atmosphere supportive of such dialogue, including the opportunity to offer alternative or dissenting opinions without fear of penalty.”

Harvey Chimoff is a customer-focused global business leader who connects marketing across the organization to drive performance and achieve business objectives. His B2B and CPG marketing expertise includes agribusiness, ingredients and food and beverage. Contact him at harveychimoff.com.

10 Leadership Lessons from Ernest Shackleton’s Famous Arctic Survival Mission

Few, if any, business challenges will rise to the life and death level that faced Ernest Shackleton and his 27-man crew during their doomed Antarctica expedition in 1915 and 1916.

Nevertheless, there are many applicable learnings we can take from their ultimate and monumental survival achievements.

First, for those not familiar with the story, here’s a quick recap, which does not do the amazing feat justice (this post is inspired by the book Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage):

  • The expedition’s ship, Endurance, was caught in an arctic ice pack vise grip and was slowly crushed and sunk;
  • The crew survived hundreds of miles on floating blocks of ice;
  • Three open, wooden life boats were used to navigate to a tiny strip of land;
  • From there, a crew of six in one boat sailed 800 miles in one of the the most dangerous seas in the world;
  • Finally, three men made a seemingly impossible land journey to reach a whaling station, leading to the eventual rescue of the entire crew.

Here are ten reasons why Shackleton and his crew survived what should have been an unsurvivable mission. More than 100 years later, they are still relevant and highly applicable to businesses and organizations.

  1. Human Spirit/Positive Outlook. Do not underestimate the mental part of the equation. The right attitude is always critical, even during the worst predicaments.
  1. Critical Fixed Goal. At all times, Shackleton and crew had a laser-focused, specific, tangible, critical objective. There was nothing fuzzy about it and everyone understood the mission.
  1. Perseverance. The dogged, stick-to-it, keep trying mindset was instrumental to the crew’s survival.
  1. Trusting Your Team. Shackleton did not try and do everything himself. He empowered, delegated and deployed his team in the best manner he could. For example, the survival probably would not have happened without the expert seamanship and navigation of Captain Frank Worsley.
  1. Someone Clearly in Charge. Look, while collaboration is great and necessary, at some point someone has to make the call on how to proceed. Shackleton was that guy.
  1. Analyzing Options. Shackleton constantly evaluated the current situation, and considered the scenarios and options. This analysis drove his decision-making, yet he was not a one-man show. For instance, he did not hesitate to seek input and counsel from key members of the team. This use of key team members as a “discussion partner” and sounding board was undoubtedly an important factor for their ultimate success.
  1. Adaptability. In business and in life, it’s always how you navigate the journey. Similar to managing the sails in a difficult sea, it’s necessary to course adjust. Shackleton was willing to recalibrate or change his decisions when necessary.
  1. Practical, Real-time Decision-making. Probably no one would want to be in Shackleton’s proverbial shoes and have to assume such life and death decision-making. Yet, he understood his role and did not shirk from making the tough calls.
  1. Effective Communication. Shackleton continuously kept the entire crew informed.
  1. Good Fortune. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with some good fortune along the way. Believe it or not, sometimes that is the difference in the outcome.

Harvey Chimoff is a customer-focused global business leader who connects marketing across the organization to drive performance and achieve business objectives. His B2B and CPG marketing expertise includes agribusiness, ingredients and food and beverage. Contact him at harveychimoff.com.

Urban Farmers are Growing Fruit Trees in Philadelphia. Really.

Consider this apparent oxymoron: urban orchards.

It’s a reality in Philadelphia, the sixth largest city by population in the United States.

Enabling the creation of urban orchards is exactly what the Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP) is doing. This nonprofit organization plants and supports community orchards in the city of Philadelphia. Growing locally is one way to increase access to fresh fruit and vegetables and expand sustainability.

Photo: Philadelphia Orchard Project. 2020 Annual Report.

Philadelphia Orchard Project helps boost nutritional intake by increasing access to fresh fruit and vegetables for often under-served inner city populations. POP requires that “the harvest (or proceeds from its sale) go to benefit low-wealth communities.”

According to POP, “the exact mix of trees and plants in each orchard depends upon our community partner’s preferences as well as strategies for sustaining healthy, productive orchards.” This includes, for example:

  • Fruit and Nut Trees: almonds, apples, Asian pears, peaches, plums and more
  • Shrubs and Berry Bushes: blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and more
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