How to help your people to speak up

Why aren’t your people speaking up? If this is important to you, what can you do to ensure they do?

We’ve been getting to this point over a couple of posts, so let me refresh the last two to set the scene. You can skip ahead to Two Critical Factors if you prefer.

The BAS – approaching

Two posts ago we talked about how we’re wired to respond to situations, and we drilled right down to the biology that supports our personality and motivations, which we know as Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory.

Some of us naturally approach things with a generally positive view of getting something good out of them. We’re built that way. These are people with a more sensitive Behavioural Approach System (BAS), who tend to approach potential reward.

The BIS – avoiding

Others of us are built differently, and we’re naturally inclined to avoid things because we have a general view that this will protect us from harm. These are people with either a more sensitive Behavioural Inhibition System, or more sensitive Fight Flight Freeze System, who tend to avoid threat, ambiguity and fear.

Between them, these approach and avoidance systems activate different behaviours and have different chemistry.

The context in which we act

By contrast, our last post focused on how the behaviour of the leader or manager (in all of these cases, me) affected the context in which people worked.

What I was doing, or not doing, as a leader and manager led directly to people feeling as though they couldn’t speak up. For a variety of reasons they felt that they weren’t being, or wouldn’t be, listened to, so there was no point in even making the effort to speak up.

I was eroding their sense of Psychological Safety and creating an environment that was counterproductive.

The environment I was creating, with subtle threats and implications in who I was and what I was doing, didn’t allow them to perform at their best, and there was no reward for speaking up.

Two critical factors

These posts, then, give us two important factors to work with. The situation in which we act, and the personal disposition we bring to that situation.

When we come to Psychological Safety, and in particular the question of our people speaking up, it raises a useful tension. 

Why aren’t your people speaking up?

The dispositional angle

There are generally two perspectives on why your people might not speak up.

The dispositional angle suggests it’s something about them. Perhaps they’re just not built that way.

They may have a more sensitive BIS and speaking up just isn’t in their biology. That could manifest as timidity or shyness. They’ll naturally avoid rather than approach. Or if we frame it in the language of The Big Five personality dimensions, perhaps they’re introverted.

This may describe you, or people you work with. It is just not in their nature to speak up and take that kind of risk. Other people seem so much better at it. It doesn’t reflect lack of ideas, suggestions or concerns, but the unwillingness to engage in what can be risky behaviour.

The situational angle

The alternate option is that it’s not so much them, but that the context they’re in, the situation, doesn’t support speaking up.

They may have a more sensitive BAS and naturally approach risk more readily. They may be perfectly happy to speak up, but only when the situation facilitates it. Perhaps they’ve realised that even if they do, the boss will impose significant costs on them.

Again, if we frame it in the language of The Big Five personality dimensions, perhaps they’re extraverted. But the people who can usually be relied on to say something are, for reasons known only to them at this stage, silent.

Disposition vs Situation

Here’s where it gets really interesting.

Determining whether this could be a disposition or situation issue depends entirely on where you stand. You have a perspective on why you didn’t speak up, and so does your manager.

If I were to ask your manager why you didn’t speak up, she might say it’s because you’re introverted. You might say it’s because she’s publicly critical when someone challenges her and it’s not worth the risk.

The trick is in determining which is in play in any given circumstance. All things being equal, which has more impact? And how, as the leader, would you know. And then what?

The Fundamental Attribution Error

The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), articulated by Lee Ross back in 1977, says that we tend to attribute the actions of someone else to their disposition, while attributing our own actions to the situation.

Using the speaking up example, your manager argues that you lack confidence, or need to speak up more, or should feel able to challenge things because that’s the kind of team she wants.

The problem here, according to her, is you.

However, as we’ve said, you have a situational view of this issue.

And here’s the kicker. When your boss’ boss tells her that she needs to try a little harder to speak up, that he would like her to bring more ideas to the table and wonders if she needs to come out of her shell more then it’s obvious that he has a dispositional view of her actions.

She finds him threatening and domineering and worries about her reputation.

So she happily accommodates the contradiction in her mind that in your circumstances it’s a dispositional problem, while in hers it’s a situational problem.

This is the Fundamental Attribution Error in Action. Although they’re slightly different, this is sometimes called correspondence bias or over-attribution effect.

You’ll find examples everywhere

Why did that guy cut you off in the road? Obviously because he’s selfish, incredibly rude and a bad driver.

No, really, why did he cut you off? He was taking evasive action from someone else. He’s rushing to get to the hospital after the frantic call he got from his daughter. He’s late. He misjudged the distance. Or he didn’t cut you off at all. Maybe the distance between you and he closed so quickly because you were driving too fast.

He’s probably a really nice guy who happened to cut you off.

Of course, if you did it to him…

You get the picture. And it’s something we do all the time.

So what do we do?

For anyone (because we all do it) being aware of the FAE is an ideal first step. If we at least ask ourselves what other factors could be in view to help explain someone’s actions, we’re off to a great start.

Formally, what we’re doing is generating alternative hypotheses for what we see. At the very least, it buys us some breathing time to think before we commit to a course. At the best end, if we have hypotheses, we can test them.

First off is the fundamental importance of relationships so we know our people better, and we understand their natural inclination as approachers (BAS) or avoiders (BIS). Next, we might test by asking more questions of people we work with to understand the space they might be in over a day, or before a meeting. What’s on their mind?

In a specific situation, testing might be checking in with someone after a meeting, or inviting comments in different ways. More broadly, we might seek feedback from a team, develop an anonymous survey and the like. 

It’s often not black and white

Like many models, FAE isn’t watertight.

People are more of one than the other, not completely either or. We have a sensitivity to approach or avoid, not an exclusive option.

And both situation and disposition play a part in whether people speak up. It seems self-evident that natural approachers will almost always speak up more than natural avoiders. But in situations where speaking up is penalised, neither may.

Additionally, as his research developed, Ross noted that the apex of FAE is what he called ‘the illusion of superior personal objectivity’. I think I’m more objective than you, and I therefore put more weight in what I say, and also tend to make more dispositional attributions.

But if we’re forced to choose which is dominant, whether situation or disposition, it seems there’s a winner, and thus a clear steer for leaders.

Situation beats disposition

The situation is where the real power resides.

The situation can override the biological disposition of an approacher, shutting them down. By extension, a different environment can override the biological disposition of an avoider.

That’s not as difficult as it may sound.

Once norms are established and run in, they become incredibly resistant to change. If they are left to chance, that can be bad. If they are developed consultatively and deliberately, they can be incredibly, powerfully good.

For both approachers and avoiders, the balance of threat needs to shift. By that, I mean that the risk becomes inherent in not speaking up, and speaking up is reinforced. Even for the outlier avoiders, this will help overcome their natural inhibition.

If honesty and candour are the expectation, and silence reaps disapproval, we become honest and candid. But we have to carefully set, establish and reinforce that norm, and the behaviours that are associated with it.

That’s the responsibility of the leader, who has more power and influence than the team.

In practice

And at the risk of stereotyping approachers and avoiders, imagine two scenarios.

Imagine we want innovation. What environment do you need, what norms, to foster it? The leader develops these with the team, reinforcing and rewarding ideas and options.

Perhaps your approachers may be particularly useful in kicking off conversations here given their natural tendencies, which you can then reinforce. Avoiders will come in too, and need to be provided the space and airtime.

Or imagine raising flags is the goal, such as with identifying risks, or spotting process gaps. Leaders can develop norms to support those goals too. Perhaps your natural threat identifiers are useful in the first instance, and you can reinforce those behaviours. Approachers will come in then also

In both instances, not speaking up carries the risk, and this is where the power of the situation is most effective.

So when it comes to the FAE, once we know what to look for, and know to generate other explanations for actions, we can also begin curate an environment that works to people’s natural strengths, rewards the right things, and facilitates speaking up.

You’ve just taken a major step to Psychological Safety.

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