Speaking freely isn’t easy and it isn’t always wise, particularly at work. Theoretically, people want to communicate. But in reality, exchanging our thoughts can feel dangerous—sometimes with good reason.
Researchers from the UK’s Hult International Business School spent two years studying 60 executives (pdf) and employees at six organizations to better understand communication across ranks. They found that leaders don’t necessarily mean it when they say the door is always open, nor do they always appreciate how risky it feels for people to speak up, creating a danger that workers become cynical about claims to want to communicate.
The study concluded that five intertwined concepts govern speaking truth to power at work—conviction, risk awareness, political awareness, social awareness, and judgment. The researchers believe that understanding these concepts can help leaders and workers become better and wiser communicators.
Considering these questions can get you started, no matter where you are in the hierarchy:
1. Do you want to talk?
Advice for leaders: Leaders who really want to hear from workers have to show their openness by actually responding to suggestions, not just saying the door is open for discussion. And they should acknowledge that those who speak up have conviction; they believe their opinion is valuable and they’ve taken a risk to voice it.
Advice for staff: Workers must take bosses who say they want open communication at face value and take risks, unless there’s proof positive leaders really aren’t interested. The researchers suggest that it’s worth talking to a boss who shows an open mind through actions, not just words.
2. Is it risky to talk?
Even the best bosses have bad days when they respond gruffly.
Advice for leaders: The researchers warn that workers will best remember the occasions when things go wrong. That means leaders can easily develop a bad reputation and must be willing to apologize, keeping in mind that for workers—who are ultimately assessed by them—there’s reason to fear the consequences of a negative exchange.
Advice for staff: Employees should remember that leaders are just people with weaknesses and that most don’t actually want to destroy their workers. The researchers say that “having a realistic grasp of the true consequences of speaking up” is critical.
3. Are you aware of office politics?
The office tends to look and feel different to people wherever they stand in the hierarchy.
Advice for leaders: Leaders can get used to hearing what they want from the same few people working their way up the ranks, and get the impression that there is genuine communication. But that’s not necessarily the case, the researchers warn. They urge bosses to consider who is saying what to them and why, and to ask why some workers are staying silent, so as to make “an informed choice” about whether to widen the inner circle.
Advice for staff: Employees, for their part, can consider the role they are assuming in the office dynamic and whether it is one that serves them and everyone else. To understand that, and to accurately assess risk, individuals must be aware of who has power and influence in an organization, as well as a sense of their likely agendas and priorities.
4. How are people labeled?
Consciously and unconsciously we label people at work. The researchers note that these labels— CEO, consultant, woman, young, new—mean different things to different people in different contexts “but inevitably they are all markers of status, and status governs the unwritten rules around who can speak and who gets heard.”
Advice to leaders and staff: Becoming conscious of these labels—and the advantages and disadvantages associated with them—will help to limit their power. Everyone should ask themselves how they are labeled, how they are labeling, and whether they are inadvertently silencing others or themselves as a result.
5. Are you developing discernment?
The researchers define judgment as the skill of knowing what to say, to who, when, and why.
Advice to leaders and staff: The researchers believe that by asking the four questions above, anyone can improve their judgment, making communication more effective individually and for the organization.