Speak Up! with Professor Megan Reitz

RelyOn-podcast-Megan-Reitz

Megan is Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Hult Business School and Founder of Reitz Consulting. She is listed on the Thinkers50 ranking of global management thinkers and HR Magazine Most Influential Listing. She has previously appeared on Brene Brown’s podcast, Dare to Lead.

In this episode of RelyOn host, Nathan Luker, talks to Professor Reitz about creating a culture where employees feel safe to speak up, and leaders know how to listen.

Topics covered include:

  • Most leaders have an open door policy, so why don’t employees speak up?
  • How a leader’s listening behaviour in small conversations influence if they will hear about the big stuff
  • How a speak up culture helps leaders hear the good news about innovation and opportunity as well as the bad news about conduct and culture problems
  • Why productive and purposeful conflict is the sign of a healthy workplace culture
  • Why employee silence isn’t confirmation nothing is wrong
  • Employee activism and why employees, shareholders and communities expect more from organisations and their leaders

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Additional Resources

Podcast Transcript

Megan Reitz: [00:00:00] Because how a leader shows up affects how others do. How a leader shows up affects other people’s voices. So how a leader shows up affects what they get to hear. And in order to lead superbly well, you need to hear what you need to hear.

Nathan Luker: [00:00:27] Welcome back to RelyOn, in our pursuit of connecting you with the best thinkers and leaders on the planet. Today, I’m joined with Megan Reitz, one of the top 50 management thinkers in the world. Professor, speaker, author and consultant. And we’re discussing the nuances of speaking up at work.

Nathan Luker: [00:00:44] Hey, Megan, welcome to the show.

Megan Reitz: [00:00:46] It’s great to be with you, Nathan. Nice to be here. Thank you.

Nathan Luker: [00:00:49] You’ve dedicated most of your professional career to improving how we turn up and encounter one another at work. Your book with John Higgins Speak Up and the subsequent Ted talks with millions of views are world renowned for finally delivering a practical how-to guide for leaders to establish the conditions to properly listen and frameworks that build courage for those needing to say something. Want to start our conversation with your why? What has driven your curiosity in this space?

Megan Reitz: [00:01:17] Um, it’s always an interesting question. Where did it all start? I’m not sure, but I will say that I started my working career as a strategy consultant a long time ago, and whilst we were creating our perfect strategies for organisations, that was, you know, definitely the right answer that they were supposed to do. I became increasingly interested by the fact that very few of them actually implemented them and the reason why they didn’t implement them is because of people, you know, you can have this really lovely model of what would be an ideal, and then, of course, the thing is how do you work with people and how do you instigate change in a system? And that led me to the Internet industry in the 90s, which was absolutely crazy. And I had a crazy management job leading a very big team, despite the fact that I was absolutely not qualified to do so. And again, that really got me interested in cross-cultural working. You know, how do you actually get people engaged and changing and working well together? Eventually, I went off to Deloitte and I became an organisational change and people consultant because that was the bit that really interested me and it really started there. I think I became particularly fascinated by how we instigate change in organisational systems and the role that a leader can have in that. And over the years became very interested in how a leader shows up because how a leader shows up affects how others do. How a leader shows up affects other people’s voices. So how a leader shows up affects what they get to hear. And in order to lead superbly well, you need to hear what you need to hear. And so that’s the area that I’ve been focused in on, I’d say, over the last ten years in particular.

Nathan Luker: [00:03:32] Thanks for sharing that, Megan. It’s great context and provides a wonderful backdrop to the topic today. So listening comes before the expectation of speaking. Why do so many leaders struggle with this?

Megan Reitz: [00:03:45] Let me share two stories that are really, really important in the research that I’ve been doing. And the first story is the very first quote I ever recorded in this particular project. And what happened is I got tapped on the shoulder by a leader at an organisation who said to me, Megan, we’ve got a bit of an issue because they over there, pointing at the middle managers, I think, and the junior employees. “They’re not speaking up enough and we need them to. You know, they need to be a bit braver and speak up. They need to have courage.” And they said to me, “Can you, you know, can you go over and make them speak up, please, Megan?” So off I went to talk to these managers and employees, and the very first quote that I recorded was directly from them. And they said, “Last time somebody spoke up around here, they disappeared.” Which told me very, very quickly that you can spend a hell of a lot of time telling people to speak up, encouraging people to speak up and sending them on workshops around courageous conversations. And all of that has a place and it’s a complete waste of time and money unless you are focusing more on creating an environment where people are listening, where people are making it safe for people to speak up in the first place.

Megan Reitz: [00:05:20] So speaking up is relational. I speak up depending on how you show up. And in second very quick story is an interview that I did last year. One of the most profound interviews that I’ve done over the last few years. And it was with somebody called Ian Wilkie. And Ian is the chairman of an organisation called 50 Million Voices. And 50 Million Voices seeks to support the community of about 50 million adults across the globe that stammer so they have a stutter and Ian stutters. And in the interview with Ian, Ian said to me, “Megan, how you’re showing up right now affects my voice. So if you show up, you know, busy or frustrated or impatient or if you try and finish my sentences, if I can see that you’re distracted, if those things are happening, I will literally lose my voice.” And for me, that was a phenomenal metaphor for leadership. So again, as a leader, how you’re showing up affects the voices that you get to hear. So that is why my research and obviously the book is called Speak Up. But actually when you look at my research, I spend even more time on how do we create an environment where we can listen and that people know that they’ll be listened to if they’re speaking up or if it’s something important?

Nathan Luker: [00:06:52] Yeah, that’s interesting. So picking up on the theme there, that the way a leader turns up and the leader’s ability to listen day in, day out is relational to the broader speak up culture. Is that a good way to look at it?

Megan Reitz: [00:07:05] Yes. So in our research, it’s a really good point. In our research, we have a phrase where we say the big conversations won’t happen unless the small ones do. And I think this is the interesting thing. I look at something called conversational habits, which is essentially our habits around what gets said and who gets heard. And there is a tendency to look at the big newsworthy stories of when somebody didn’t say something or somebody did and they didn’t get heard. And of course, we’ve looked at lots of that. But the thing about our habits are, you know, most people listening to this have already made perhaps hundreds of choices today on whether to speak up or whether to stay silent and whether to listen or not. And those habits today probably don’t matter. You know, they probably don’t have any major consequences. But if you have the same habits over the next year or the next five years, that’s when our small habits, our small decisions, our small choices in our small conversations can end up having really, really big consequences.

Nathan Luker: [00:08:20] Yeah, that’s a fantastic point and worth repeating. Small actions have big consequences. Megan, this is hard to get right for leaders amongst BAU, macro trends and everything in between. It’s hard enough in the physical world. How has that changed over the last few years in the online and hybrid world?

Megan Reitz: [00:08:41] It has. I steer away from too many generalisations around it, so there tends to be a generalised statement of, Oh, it’s much trickier now, now that we’re all virtual or now that we’re hybrid. It’s trickier to get these spaces where we have conversations. And in our research we’ve researched situations where we have teams that have phenomenally relational, open spaces prioritised virtually, and we also work with teams who have loads of time face to face, but they have completely dysfunctional meetings and vice versa. So it can we can make it work no matter what the format is. And what we find is that some people that we’ve researched with say to us that they are far more able to speak up now that it’s virtual than they ever were face to face and in the office. And then we speak to some other people that say, Oh my goodness, I can’t read the physical cues. It’s so hard. Virtually. So what does that mean for our managers? Well, it means that our managers need to try and understand the makeup of their own teams. There’s probably difference within those teams, but there is a real need for managers to ask the questions.

Megan Reitz: [00:10:01] You know, what are we learning about the way we’re now communicating? You know, what do we need to emphasise and protect and what do we need to experiment with? And there’s still something that surprises me so much in that we don’t have those conversations very regularly in organisations. We don’t pause and create a space where we look at how we are doing things and what we are learning and then create these small experiments that might make the way that we work together better. And all that comes down to the fact that our spaces for learning and for relational work are being increasingly squeezed out and they’re being squeezed out to prioritise shorter-term, tangible results. And again, that kind of doesn’t seem to matter too much today or in the next few weeks. But if we keep heading in this direction where we cut out these small sorts of spaces and conversations, then we’ll find a lot of things that really matter to our short-term results, like ethical conduct, like innovation, like inclusion. They fall by the wayside.

Nathan Luker: [00:11:24] Well said, Megan. That’s a great connection to our earlier point around small actions having big consequences. And we should clarify that big consequences may not be the large scale on the front page of the paper or the misconduct issue. It’s far more likely these small actions will chip away at our rate of innovation, at the quality of our relationships and our ability to productively debate or have difficult conversations. And over time, these are corrosive to a culture and really difficult for a leader to measure on a daily basis. As you were making your point, I began to reflect on the importance of a high-quality culture in these moments. Through COVID, we shone a torch into the shadows of a culture, and we worked out the good, the bad and the ugly. We very quickly determined what was working and what wasn’t working, and the organisations that were able to thrive learned from these quickly and adapted their environment to the online world and now to the hybrid world. They made spaces to listen. They empowered people and they created safety. Even in an organisation that were slow to do this very rarely do you meet leaders who intentionally create a bad culture or want to harm people or want to engage in misconduct. It happens, but it’s incredibly rare. So what happens when a leader is going up the ranks at a hierarchy? What happens to blind spots, do they increase or decrease?

Megan Reitz: [00:12:53] So let me talk about two areas of our research here. One is called advantage blindness, and the other one is called superiority illusion. So if there’s one thing in organisations that affects what gets said and who gets heard, it’s the way we understand relative status and authority. One way into that is to think about what titles and labels in your organisational system or in your team affect whose voice gets heard. And the listeners to this are already titling and labelling me. So for example, even though you can’t see me, you’ve labelled me as female, you’ve labelled me as British, as a professor, an author. And these titles and labels, along with other labels like department, like location. Are you in headquarters or not? Of course there’s ethnicity, there’s tenure. How long have you been in your job? And of course there’s hierarchy. These titles and labels affect whether we feel able to speak up and our expectations of being heard. Now, when we have the high-status labels, we’re often the last person to realise the impact that those labels have on others, and they often make us a little bit more intimidating to others. And hierarchy is obviously a classic. So as we go up our leadership ladder and we get a few more titles and labels, we feel the same. You know, we’re lovely as far as we’re concerned, but to everybody else, you become more and more scary. And it’s a big blind spot of leaders that they forget how scary they are to others. And this is important because they then don’t do the work needed to put others at their ease. And they also assume that their experience, which tends to be, yeah, can speak up and get heard.

Megan Reitz: [00:15:06] They generalise that and they think, okay, we in our organisation can speak up and get heard. But of course, if you don’t have those high-status labels and titles, your experience can be very, very different. Added to that, something that we call superiority illusion, which means that everybody thinks that they’re a better listener than they actually are perceived to be by other people because we rate ourselves on our intent. And we rate other people on their behaviour. Superiority illusion means that we think we’re good listeners, we think we’re approachable, but we’re not as much as we think we are. Now, if you add those two things together, what you get a senior leaders that have a massive blind spot. They think people are speaking up far more than they actually are. And as part of our research, we’ve now surveyed about 17,000 employees globally across hierarchy and across industry. One thing is really clear as you get more senior and in fact, as you get more white and male, you are likely to overestimate the degree to which people are speaking up around you. You’re likely to overestimate how approachable you are and your listening skills. And what that will mean is that you’ll underestimate the amount of work you need to do to put others at their ease, and you won’t hear the challenges that are actually being faced by your employees. So that’s a big blind spot. And what it means is, you know, one real focus area is on how do our leaders and managers do an even better job at helping others to speak up.

Nathan Luker: [00:16:59] Yeah. And it seems likely these blind spots could creep up on executives with long tenure. A few achievements under the belt. The Daily BAU. Your mind would shift away from the daily habits required to maintain a strong listening ecosystem. As Napoleon said, you are what you think about. And if executives don’t practice this day in, day out, the blind spots can begin to appear. There is no end date. How does that have an impact on culture?

Megan Reitz: [00:17:29] What that reminds me of is we have stories in our mind around what will happen if we speak up. And it’s a really good idea as a leader and manager to know what stories exist in the minds of the teams that you lead. And if we don’t look at our practice as a leader, how we help people to speak up before we know it, people can have a story in their mind that says, “Well, there’s no point because nobody’s listening or well, last time I tried to speak up, it didn’t end well. Therefore I won’t.” And these loops, these stories can really disable an organisation, you know, particularly the story that there isn’t any point. Nobody will make any change. I’ll be ignored. That story really stops people speaking up. And, you know, the worst thing is that leaders often don’t even know that that’s a story that exists in people’s minds.

Nathan Luker: [00:18:30] What would you say to those leaders listening who don’t want to accept those stories or they might not care? They see them as projections or labels baggage from past employers if they come to work thinking they have a frame of reference of acting ethically, respectfully, but with an achievement orientation, with their job being the most important thing of the day needs to be achieved. What do they need to consider?

Megan Reitz: [00:18:56] So the first thing I would say is, is that leaders need to realise how scary they are because that does have a really big impact on people speaking up. Another thing I would say is with regards to that story that’s so easily generated around, you know, nothing will happen if I speak up. Leaders response when people do speak up is absolutely vital. So how you respond when somebody has spoken up will impact whether that person speaks up again. And probably whether their colleagues speak up again. So it’s really, really important to be aware of your responses and do respond in a way that will make people want to try that again, if that makes sense. And in our research, one other thing that we look at is something that we call the five W’s, which stands for Who, Why, What, Where and When. And we ask leaders to think really carefully around whose voice do they need to hear that they’re not hearing at the moment, and why? What happens if they don’t hear that voice? Then to look at what verbal and body language they need to use to put the other person at their ease? And then where and when do they invite people to speak up? Because environment really matters, You know, is this an invitation to speak up in a Teams meeting or is it in a walk and talk outside or is it in an informal setting or a formal setting? So how we ask people to speak up and the language that we use is really, really vital. You know, if you’re a leader, this is one leader that we observed recently showed a new strategy to a team, and he wanted to get some feedback on it. And he clicked through the PowerPoint presentation and literally at the end of the PowerPoint presentation, he kind of glared at everybody and all he said was he just went right. Feedback.

Nathan Luker: [00:21:00] What do you think?

Megan Reitz: [00:21:04] We watched everybody sort of sit on their hands and say absolutely nothing. So there are all sorts of things that we can do as leaders to make it far more likely that people will be able to think well.

Nathan Luker: [00:21:19] Well, there’s another example of small actions having a big negative impact on the psychological safety in that team.

Megan Reitz: [00:21:26] Yes, indeed. Another manager that we observed also had a strategy presentation that they wanted to hear some feedback on, and that manager divided the group into three sections, asked one group to take the role of their most ruthless competitor and another group to take the role of their most discerning customer and the third group to take the role of the junior employees. And then her question to the group was, okay, what, you know, what would be the top two challenges that you’d have to the presentation I’ve just shown you? And that generated a very different sort of conversation. And what that leaders doing, which is really fascinating and may sound totally counterintuitive, is that leader is making it easy for others to disagree with her. And that is a very new leadership practice. You know, before we’ve always talked about leaders knowing the answer and persuading everybody to do what they want them to do. And now we’re saying, well, yes, you still need to do that, but you also occasionally need to make it very easy for people to disagree with you if you’re to see your blind spots.

Nathan Luker: [00:22:45] And on that point, we’ve found the level of productive and purposeful conflict and debate as a great proxy to a good culture. You know, to quote yourself, silence is deafening. How do leaders handle silence?

Megan Reitz: [00:23:02] So it’s been interesting, actually, on this research journey for the last ten years. When we first started our project, much of the interest from our organisational clients was around compliance. Initially, when we started our project, it was 2015 and the VW emissions scandal had just happened and many of our clients were thinking, Oh goodness me, you know, if it can happen to VW, what about us? What’s happening in our organisation that we really need to hear about? And so, you know, one of the very obvious costs of silence is ethical behaviour and compliance systems. A few years later, a lot of talk was around agility, you know, and innovation. And we had many clients who came to us saying, well, hang on a second, if we’re to be agile and if we’re to innovate, you know, for example, through the pandemic as well, we need people to speak up with ideas and we need people to disagree with the way things are being done so that we can innovate. And so the cost of silence there is you don’t transform, you don’t change an organisational system unless you can help people to speak up. And then very recently, I would say most of the conversation has been around diversity and inclusion and talent retention. You know, how do you enable all of the voices in your organisation to speak up with their ideas? How do you really allow people to flourish so that the organisation can really innovate and work well? So the cost of silence is significant, you know, the obvious ones around compliance, around innovation and around inclusion. But, you know, in a sort of old phrase, we spend hours at work, don’t we? And it is phenomenally important that we feel that our opinions count. If we don’t feel that they count and we silence ourselves, we reduce our capacity for, you know, so much. And that is just a crying shame for us as individuals, but also our organisations and society.

Nathan Luker: [00:25:25] It’s interesting. There’s an organisation that is silent, who goes first and what have you got to listen to in an environment where potentially it’s falling on deaf ears or the type of leadership isn’t resonating? I was reading a really interesting book by Sally Helgerson called Rising Together, and there was an example there in the military, a female, a female general, where you’re meant to salute the general when you see them walking past. And she noticed being a female that a high proportion of individuals were just not making eye contact, pretending to be busy, so they didn’t need to recognise her and do the salute. That was her assumption. And I think that’s an interesting point we don’t hear of often, is in an environment that the leader actually is making all attempts to lead by example and listen. But there’s still silence. And there’s a moment there where the general in that example could have been silent herself. She could have just kept walking and ignored it. And she’s earned the right to be there. She has the position they need to do what she says. It was a beautiful example of how she decided to call it out. But instead of calling it out and demanding respect, demanding someone to speak up, she gave benefit of the doubt. She turned up. She had a positive intent and said, I think you may have missed me there or asked what they were doing and then in turn would turn around and then it would result in the desired behaviour, which was the salute, which is important in that structure. It’s an interesting step of how to create allyship to lead by example as well about not being silent.

Megan Reitz: [00:26:55] I think that’s really interesting. If leaders can be curious as well and inquiring rather than because what that leader could easily have done is you just said, Nathan, is that leader could basically tell people off and scare people.

Nathan Luker: [00:27:10] Quite easily.

Megan Reitz: [00:27:11] Or shame people.

Nathan Luker: [00:27:13] Not that difficult to get the desired behaviour, which is the salute. You’re right.

Megan Reitz: [00:27:17] Yeah. But another way in would be to think, you know as well to ask people to be curious about their own behaviour, you know, what’s going on there, or what are we doing in this system? Isn’t this interesting? Let’s inquire into this. Let’s create a space where people start to reflect. And that’s that would be a great way for a leader to respond. But of course, you know, as we know, culture and culture change is not something that happens generally overnight. It’s built up over time. And the negative stories around speaking up and not being heard stay longer, I’m afraid, than the positive stories of when it’s ended well, and so one of the biggest issues I see with organisations trying to create psychological safety at the moment is that it is literally, you know, right, it’s the conference topic for this year and we’ll have it, you know, we’ll have a speaker in to talk about psychological safety. And that is literally it. And as with any culture change, it just takes patience. You have to prioritise it and you persist over years to create changes. And that’s hard work that many organisations don’t create the time to do.

Nathan Luker: [00:28:39] Yeah, it’s a good point, Megan. I guess to achieve what we call generational culture change, leaders need to put in the hard work every single day with no illusion that there’s a finish line. There isn’t one. That’s what’s required. That’s how you change the stories and the narrative with team members and stakeholders that it’s a safe place to speak up and to exist, and that you’re going to be listened to and protected and valued. I’ve made a career doing this type of work, creating human centered speak up programs at organisations. And I have to ask, because we recently noticed that you’ve been fairly critical of traditional whistleblowing interventions that don’t lead to behaviour change. Can you expand?

Megan Reitz: [00:29:21] Yeah, sure thing. See, it links a little bit into research that I’ve been doing recently on activism. In that research, we created a kind of a taxonomy of leadership responses to what we call voices of difference. And that taxonomy goes from kind of nonexistent, where, you know, the topic just isn’t on the agenda at all through to suppression where leaders are well, as it says, suppressing voices through to something called façadism, which is when leaders say the right things, but there’s no actual action. Then there’s defensive engagement, which is, okay, let’s do what the lawyers tell us. We have to. Let’s do the bare minimum. Then it goes to dialogic engagement, which is an entirely different beast. That’s when we really lean into difficult conversations with curiosity. When we’re sharing information, we’re sharing decision making. Now, I think with whistleblowing, what can happen is exactly what can happen in general, speak up initiatives is that you get stuck in façadism or defensive engagement, which is when we say the right things or we instigate the right hotlines. But that’s it. We do that because we know we have to. But the the sort of harder, deeper work of caring about what people are actually saying about genuinely wanting people to use those lines and creating the stories that say, okay, that was worth it. I am being heard. That stuff isn’t happening for whatever reasons. Now, very often with façadism, very often organisations have good intentions.

Megan Reitz: [00:31:14] You know, people want to hear from whistleblowers. They want to know what’s going on. But there they then get distracted. You know, they get on to other short term tangible results and then they forget to respond well, or they forget to really step out of their own little bubbles. So what I would say we wrote one article, I wrote one article with John that was called “If whistleblowing is the answer, then ask a different question.” And my point there is in you know this, Nathan, in an ideal world, we don’t need a whistleblowing line because we’ve had the conversations far earlier in the process. That means that we don’t need one. Now, that’s an idealistic thing to say. You will always need the whistleblowing policies and processes and forums, but ideally we are putting a lot of effort into having the conversations that are required and enabling people to challenge before it gets to some anonymised process that they have to follow in order to hopefully be heard. And of course there’s also, you know, people won’t use the whistleblowing line unless they trust that somebody is listening and that they trust it’s anonymous. And I’ve worked in organisations, I’m sure you have, Nathan, where there just isn’t that trust. So people aren’t using the systems. And then the biggest mistake leaders and managers make is to think, therefore, there isn’t a problem.

Nathan Luker: [00:32:40] Exactly right. It comes back to the everyday conversations in our experience for the success of a speak up regime, which could have a range of ways for someone to choose to call via hotline or going to a contact office or in the workplace or something of that nature. It generally is all predicated on the smaller things that we spoke about earlier. How strong is that trust environment? I have a commercial bias. But, but I do truly believe that there is a place for a broad range of reporting pathways. If you want to be an organisation in the pursuit of accessibility and inclusiveness, there needs to be a broad range. We can’t project or predict the person’s anxiety state their preferences in reporting. I’ve heard the word shame used about certain types of wrongdoing, etc. It’s a complex web there. And when the rubber hits the road, when someone has been a bystander or a victim survivor of some type of horrible situation in that, it’s really hard to predict what they do next. But to get them to that point to make a decision of the pathway and trust leap is so large that it gets lost. An interesting extension to that question, Megan, is the efficacy of a whistleblowing report that’s anonymous, no label, no title, no gender, no information. Is it more likely an organisation will listen to this type of report or less likely? I’m asking because we work with a lot of clients to destigmatise the word whistleblower and the potential negative impacts or bias it may create when a report’s received.

Megan Reitz: [00:34:15] It’s an interesting question around when you get an anonymized comment, how do we judge, you know, when you don’t have the obvious titles and labels, how do you listen in? One thing I am really interested in is the label of whistleblower, you know, and the hugely negative connotations that go with that term. I think I shared this with you, Nathan, in a previous conversation, but I was blown away when in the UK The Times did a crossword and, you know, the Times crossword is very famous and the clue was whistleblower. And the answer in the crossword to that clue was betrayer. And there you if there was ever any evidence that we have some serious work to do in terms of reconstructing our understanding of the word whistleblower. There you go. And that worries me because we really need whistleblowers. We really need them to be able to speak up. And we need them to know that when they speak into a hotline, they will be heard and listened to. And so one of the big jobs we have is to really recognise and appreciate whistleblowers far more than we do at the moment.

Nathan Luker: [00:35:41] So, Megan, building on some of the topics today, I want to bring us to Australia. Last year we passed some fairly sizeable legislation which places a positive duty on employers to eliminate hostile work environments, sexual harassment and other types of conduct. However, at the same time, our Human Rights Commission shows only 18% of sexual harassment issues are reported. So taking your global perspective, what can you recommend to leaders to help them encourage people to speak up at work about sexual harassment?

Megan Reitz: [00:36:13] The very first thing that you can do today is respond well. It’s when people think, well, there is no point in speaking up about this because the last person that spoke up about it, nothing happened or they weren’t heard or they weren’t trusted. That really stops people. So the thing that we do today is that we make damn sure that we respond well. When people do speak up about sexual harassment and that we really prioritise our resources, our inquiry, our support to those sorts of situations. I think the other sort of bigger issues which I’ve spoken about are require firstly some of the what I would call the small conversations to be happening, which create the relational trust that enable people to speak up about difficult issues. So are we creating the spaces where we get to know one another as human beings in our workplaces? Because if we aren’t speaking up about big issues like sexual harassment, it becomes really, really tricky. So we have to prioritise that. And we also have to make sure that leaders and managers realise that just because they’re not hearing about sexual harassment does not mean that it isn’t going on. Okay? They may not be hearing about it because it’s so dangerous for people to speak up or because they’re you know, they’re in a very advantageous position. They’re scary and intimidating to others. And so, of course, they’re not hearing about it. So that would be the other thing that I would try and really focus on is just because you’re not hearing about it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. And in fact, if you’re not hearing about it, almost, that should be a bit of a concern.

Nathan Luker: [00:38:04] For a while now. And I know that you’ve been doing some great work and research at Holt, via Holt Research. You’ve been writing about the rise of employee activism. How are employee expectations changing and how should employers respond?

Megan Reitz: [00:38:20] Employee activism has been fascinating to look at firstly, because the word activism is so controversial and really, you know, so many people get different reactions to the use of that word. But we’ve been looking at voices of difference that speak up around wider social and environmental issues, seeking to influence organisational policy. And it’s happening more and more for many reasons. You know, we are able to speak up and be heard differently now because of social media, because of technology advances that enable us to collectively voice on certain issues that mean that we will and that we do trust in institutions, government institutions, trade unions has tended to go down, that means that people will speak up themselves in their own organisational systems a bit more. We’ve also got generational shifts that mean it is potentially more likely for people coming into the workplace to expect to speak up. And then of course, we’ve got leaders and managers who over the last few years have been asking people to bring their whole selves to work. We’ve got organisations that are running speak up initiatives and therefore in some countries more than others, and on some topics more than others, you’ve got employees, some employees saying, okay, thank you very much. I think I will bring my whole self to work. Let’s talk about gender. Let’s talk about race. Let’s talk about sexual harassment. Let’s talk about climate change. You’ve asked me to speak up. Let’s talk. And this is a classic example of then seeing a few leaders and managers looking slightly aghast and wondering what the hell to do with conversations that they’re just not practiced in. And then one of the issues is that we have framed leaders and managers to be the people that know how to do things really well, and they don’t make mistakes. Apparently it’s how we’ve generally trained them. But when we’re working in territory such as the, you know, the wider social and environmental issues I’ve talked about, you know, you’re having hard conversations, challenging conversations. You’re going to mess up, you’re going to say the wrong thing. There’s going to be fallout. And, you know, it takes a courageous leadership team to enter into that space. It takes a certain amount of vulnerability as well. And so our research has been exploring, well how do leaders step in that direction or not, as the case may be. What are some of the traps to avoid? And if you are an employee seeking to speak up, how do you do that? Well, you know, and it’s exhausting work if you are the voice of difference, trying to change the status quo. That is exhausting work and it needs to be done collectively. It needs to be done with a mind to looking after yourself and resourcing yourself. It requires political astuteness, all sorts of things that we’ve been exploring over the last few years.

Nathan Luker: [00:41:35] That speaks to your truth framework as well, which we’ll put in the show notes. A wonderful way to provide a map to those wanting to speak up at work. Employee activism is really interesting and something we’ve been following for a while with your work. If we put our board hat on for a moment, on one hand, you want to encourage employee activism for key topics. You know, if an organisation is engaging in unethical behaviour or known modern slavery practices or something that questions our ethical or environmental standards, for example, you want staff to build a coalition, to speak up, to agitate against the organisation that isn’t listening and push that to the board level so you can take appropriate action. On the other hand, you can see that it could be scary to endorse such practices because it’s hard to enforce a line on topics. You know, there are political matters and topics, religious and things that may not be appropriate for work. How does a leader navigate that complexity?

Megan Reitz: [00:42:36] Yeah, you’ll find that quite a few leaders have tried exactly that policy. Speak up. We want to hear about everything except on these topics now.

Megan Reitz: [00:42:47] And we’ve looked at those organisations and see our last think it’s our last. Harvard Business Review article was called Don’t Ban Politics at Work, because that has been an approach by some leaders have said, look, these topics are off, are off limits. And I think that’s a very tricky path to be. I haven’t seen that work, put it that way, because it’s impossible to say, well, what’s in and what’s out. And if you’re a leader in a privileged position at the top of an organisation, it’s all very well to say actually don’t know. Race and gender and climate aren’t business issues. They’re not focused on exactly what this organisation is here to do. If you’re sitting somewhere else with some different labels and titles on in the midst of an organisation, those topics may be absolutely business worthy and relevant and in fact might be basic human rights. So, you know, banning certain topics is a very tricky road to go down, although I do have sympathy, of course, for leaders and managers who suddenly are hearing many different voices and trying to figure out, well, hang on a second. How do I respond to all of these? Well, what I would say is that in our activism research, one of the findings was you can’t sit on the activism fence. You can’t say that you’re apolitical or neutral and not acting, not taking a stand is as political as taking a stand.

Megan Reitz: [00:44:28] But what that doesn’t mean is that you take a stand on everything. It means that you have to be very choiceful about what you will, you know, create particular formal spaces to have conversations on and what you won’t. And you have to involve stakeholders in the decision making processes that decide on, you know, where are we going to make a stand, where aren’t we going to make a stand? And so, you know, you will never get it right. You’re never going to please everybody, but you can at least show that you’ve been thoughtful and that you’ve included a range of voices in trying to navigate this territory. And it is one reason why the activism research is so interesting. It is kind of slightly new territory for leaders and managers, and we’re kind of making it up as we go along and making mistakes, which leads me to, you know, another thing that I’ve mentioned previously, but I’ll come back to because it is just so important, how do we therefore learn as we go along? How do we reflect on, you know, how is this going? Are we enabling people to speak up? Is it gone? Has it gone overboard now? Are we not actually managing to do anything because we’ve got so many voices? What other experiments do we now need to make? So that reflection and that action is absolutely vital, particularly when we’re in new territory like this.

Nathan Luker: [00:45:59] But a big part of this is encouraging debate and avoiding silence. You want to encourage failure. You want to be able to demonstrate how an organisation can lean into the obstacles that present, but take the appropriate next step of change, that that’s okay. We won’t tolerate unethical behaviour and we’ll learn from it if it does occur.

Megan Reitz: [00:46:20] Yeah, we wrote a long article on activism. If your listeners are interested in MIT Sloan Management Review. And one thing we put in that article which really speaks to this is, you know, if you are not if you don’t have activism in your organisation, you could see that as a bit of a canary in the coal mine, a bit of a concern because if people aren’t able to disagree, if people aren’t able to talk about topics where there are disagreements, then you’ve got a much bigger issue on your hands and pretty difficult to think about how you transform an organisation or how you create an ethical organisation if conversations of disagreement aren’t possible to have. So it’s a bit of a red flag.

Nathan Luker: [00:47:09] Megan, you’ve been recently focused on leaders mindfulness and its relational connection between the ability to listen and enable people to speak up. Can you share some of your insights with us?

Speaker4: [00:47:24] But the first thing to say, we’ve talked a lot about how we construct various terms on this podcast, and I can guarantee that now that you’ve mentioned the word mindfulness, some of the listeners will have gone, oh, excellent. I love this topic. I’m going to really tune in to what she says next. And then some of the listeners have probably said, okay, I think that’s time that I can clock off now because now this isn’t me. Now let me just explain that. The way I look at mindfulness and mindful leadership, when we seek to change a habit, any habit, we will not change that habit unless we catch ourselves when we’re about to do what we’ve always done and choose a different response. Okay, so in whatever habit, whether it’s to do with exercise, eating, drinking, or whether it’s a habit to do with when we accidentally silence somebody, we have to wake up in the moment where we’re about to do that habit and we have to kind of go, oh, hang on a second. I’m going to choose to do something different. And in fact, that is at the heart of all leadership development. So all leadership development relies on the change of habits, essentially. But none of that will happen unless we have this ability to wake up. And what we’ve been researching is our ability to create these small spaces where we wake up, where we kind of notice what we’re doing as we’re doing them and make a different choice. And that’s mindfulness, and that’s perhaps a slightly more, you know, pragmatic, organisationally acceptable definition of mindfulness than some of the other definitions that are around.

Megan Reitz: [00:49:13] So you can probably see if we’re a leader and we need to remember that we’re scarier than we realise. If we’re a leader and we need to remember that our body language in this moment is possibly scaring somebody or it’s helping somebody to speak up. All of these things require us to have a self-awareness in the moment, an ability to change. And that’s the research that I have written quite a lot about. And certainly we can practice this. You know, we can train the mind to wake up more of the time, not all the time, but we can train the mind like we can train the body, we can train the mind. And unfortunately and amazingly, we still leave our minds up to chance. We don’t train them really. We don’t consciously sort of think about how do I train this mind of mine, which then affects where I place my attention, which then affects absolutely everything in life. So you don’t need to train it for very long in order to make a difference. In fact, probably about ten minutes a day, if you train it in certain ways, you are far more likely to notice and spot what you’re doing as you’re doing it. And that enables you to make different choices, which can have a phenomenal impact on yourself, but the people around you as well.

Nathan Luker: [00:50:35] That’s what I love about your sessions on Calm, the work you’ve done there and Mind Time, the book we haven’t spoken about today that you co-authored as well. Megan, this conversation has been full of everything that we could have imagined for and more. We do ask all guests one question. We hope for you to complete this sentence. Great cultures rely on…

Megan Reitz: [00:50:56] Spaces to reflect, experiment and learn.

Nathan Luker: [00:51:02] How fitting. What a great way to bookend our conversation. Megan, thanks for spending time on the show.

Megan Reitz: [00:51:07] Thank you so much. Nathan I’ve really enjoyed it.

Nathan Luker: [00:51:15] Thanks so much for listening. This show is produced by the Rely Platform powering some of the world’s best-known brands to capture, manage and report on workplace issues. If you enjoyed today’s episode, we’d love to receive your review. Click follow on Apple or Spotify and feel free to share the episode widely. You can access the show notes and any mentioned resources at our website, relyplatform.com.

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