Metaphors and a speak up culture

Last week the UK’s Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) published a Good Practice Guide, Encouraging a Speak Up Culture.  They are clear that is it not only about whistleblowing – explained by Gov UK as:

You’re a whistleblower if you’re a worker and you report certain types of wrongdoing. This will usually be something you’ve seen at work – though not always. The wrongdoing you disclose must be in the public interest. This means it must affect others, e.g. the general public.

But,  IBE says,  also about ‘speaking up’ – a language shift that ‘can mark the beginning of fostering an open culture’.  The guide tells us that:

‘managers at all levels are responsible for nurturing a Speak Up culture – a culture of integrity and openness – where ethical dilemmas are discussed and debated and employees feel supported to ask questions and raise concerns.  A healthy, trustworthy culture is the basis of a sustainable organization in the long-term’.

In this it extends ‘speaking up’ beyond the bounds of whistleblowing into the arena of ‘employee voice’ which the UK’s CIPD, says is  ‘the means by which people express their opinions and have meaningful input into work-related decision-making.

(As one of their seven layers of workplace productivity Acas has ‘strong employee voice:  informed employees who can contribute and are listened to.’)

A speak up culture embraces both whistleblowing and employee voice and, as Courageous HR suggests,  ‘Maybe the way forward is to work with organizations and managers in particular, to treat whistleblowing as an aspect of employee voice.’

That’s a laudable suggestion, but is still treating the concept of speaking up in constrained, organization as machine, terms – with policies, formalities, forums, and what the CIPD in their Factsheet actually calls the Mechanisms of Employee Voice, explaining, ‘There’s a range of different and often complementary mechanisms for employee voice. We distinguish two groups: upward problem-solving and representative participation.’

Trying to address issues and opportunities of whistleblowing, employee voice, and a speak up culture from a machine metaphor is not getting us very far.  A 2013 UK survey of UK businesses’ whistleblowing ‘found that despite over 90% of companies adopting formal whistleblowing policies, 1 in 3 think their whistleblowing arrangements are not effective.’

Typically, and perhap unconsciously, we use the organization as machine metaphor in many of our organizational constructs, (e.g. employees being ‘cogs in wheels’, concepts of efficiency, pipelines, toolkits, etc).   If we used a different metaphor, from the machine one, to encourage a speak up culture then maybe we’d come up with a different, more effective, approach to designing one.

Gareth Morgan, in his book Images of Organization offers eight metaphors of organization – one of which is the machine. The others are brain, psychic prison, political system, flux and transformation, instrument of domination, living organism, and culture.

Supposing, for example, we explored the brain metaphor to consider a speak up culture – where would that lead us? Morgan, in his 2011 article,  says:

‘When you view organizations as brains, you find yourself thinking about information  processing systems, learning capacities and disabilities, right and left brain intelligence, holographic capacity distribution, and a host of images that can take brain-like thinking beyond the spongy mass of material that comprises an actual brain.’

For a moment forget about whistleblowing and employee voice and just consider a typical business meeting where usually only a handful of people present speak – why are the others not?  Using the brain metaphor raises interesting questions, for example: Are some participants having difficulty processing the discussion? Are they picking up signals of micro-inequities that constrain them?  Have they learned that the views of those with hierarchical power win or dominate, regardless of other views?   Is their cognitive capacity diminished by being in a small group, or their perceived lower status in the group?  On this last see some fascinating neuro behavioural research.  (Or if you want the easy version look here)

Perhaps if we understood, via the brain metaphor, why people did or did not speak up in meetings which are part of the daily operation of organizations, we might get some insight into why they do or do not speak up about ethical and moral concerns, which takes equal or more courage than speaking up in meetings.

Viewing the problem of not speaking up from a different metaphor could well lead to new ways of encouraging a speak up culture and yield innovative ways to do this.

What other ways are there of encouraging a speak-up culture beyond the mechanistic ways, or using metaphors?  Let me know.

NOTE: See also the CIPD publication Alternative forms of workplace voice: positioning report (September 2017)