How Speaking Up Builds a Better Organization

Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

Firefighters are very quick to recognize problems in their organization. This daily size up conversation is heard at every fire station and in every office at headquarters. But speaking up, actually bringing the issue to the attention of the organization, doesn’t happen often. At least not in the right way. Why? Because members fear that contradicting the status quo will damage their reputations or position. Or worse, they just like to talk, but have little desire to act.

Effectively communicating through the confusing maze of hierarchies in fire departments is difficult. This obstacle course wears down everyone. That wariness is costly, because feedback from the front lines is vital for improving operational practices and safety measures. With that in mind, speaking up and teaming up builds a better, more healthy organization.

Researchers have studied communication within a variety of organizations that operate in dangerous and complex environments. They interviewed and assessed teams across several measures, including professional status (the hierarchy of each team), psychological safety (the extent to which team members felt comfortable speaking up about work-related issues), and leader inclusiveness (the extend to which leaders welcomed and incorporated feedback from their members).

This research has shown that while hierarchy structures were similar across all teams, the level of psychological safety varied dramatically from one team to another – and was directly proportional to the level of leader inclusiveness. How status is handled within those hierarchies is what makes the difference.

Inclusive leaders exhibit three characteristics that lower the fear of speaking up among their members:
  1. they are accessible
  2. they proactively invite input
  3. and, they acknowledge their own fallibility
Small enabling messages from leaders, what they say and what they do, make all the difference in complex organizations like the fire service. Sometimes, for the better of the organization, you just have to have a difficult conversation.

Is your organization open to members speaking up? Are you comfortable with speaking up within your team or organization?

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