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The Many Contexts of Speaking Up - Erika Cheung

Updated: Mar 11, 2022

Erika starts by asking, when someone in an organisation spots a problem, how do they approach speaking up? What are the considerations to speaking up? What kinds of cultures do we need to foster to enable people to voice their concerns? After her own personal experience, she recognised that whistleblowing is a last resort — it’s what you do if other opportunities to speak up are obscured by barriers.

Erika was a lab associate at Theranos, and eventually became a key whistleblower who spoke out about the problematic processes and fraudulent equipment the company was using to conduct blood tests. Many people have reached out about how to raise problems in their organisations. It quickly became clear that being unable to even communicate problems at this level is a fundamental blocker to enacting any change.

How can we articulate different problems in a way that changes future behaviours?

As executive director of Ethics in Entrepreneurship, Erika offers support to those in a position where they’ve identified an issue, and need to communicate this to their team, or the wider organisation.

Doing this work has given her a wealth of case studies that illustrate the challenges faced when speaking up. Different contexts necessitate different challenges: speaking up in an established global enterprise is not the same as speaking up in a start-up, which may not have any anonymous reporting mechanisms in place yet. In one recent start-up case, a woman had to quit because one of the founders was sexually harassing her. The problem was very clear, but there were no reporting mechanisms in place for her to use, and the root of the problem was coming from the leader of the organisation. After being approached by people facing these problems in their organisations, she sought to break down the process of speaking up from the perspective of the reporter, the organisational leader, the organisation, and external systemic factors.

New organisations are usually very small, which can render anonymous reporting lines ineffective. If there are only 10-15 people in a team, and one person submits a report, their colleagues will likely be able to figure out who the report came from just from its contents. So in cases like this, anonymous reporting lines can be discouraging through fear of being singled out.

Looking at all these case studies has helped Erika realise that while the context is different every time, the core process of speaking up remains relatively the same. That process is made up of these stages:

  1. Identification of problem or conflict

  2. Communication of the problem

  3. Reception of the problem

  4. Resolution of the problem

When we think about reporting problems with the view of enacting meaningful change, we should aim to build competency for each stage of the process. This gets us closer to developing solution systems that are more relevant to individual reporters and the organisation they are a part of.

What can we understand about the psychology, behavioural aspects, and social implications of speaking up? How can this help us build systems to support speak-out cultures?

Let’s start by breaking down the ‘problems’ themselves. When facing a new issue, or set of issues, there will always be obstacles to the resolution. These are two kinds of conflicts that arise:

Task-based conflicts are when there is disagreement on how to come together to execute a particular task. These are easier to resolve, because all you need to do is reach consensus on a decision-making framework.

Relationship conflicts are more complicated — they involve people’s values and perceived social norms. This is where a lot of friction lies, and therefore this is where it can be harder to speak up.

Another important part of the first stage of this evaluative process is trying to understand how others will perceive that problem. For instance, they will inevitably try to fit it into a bucket: is the problem workable, or not? Is there a resolution to this problem, even if it’s not an easy one to reach? They may ask themselves if the person reporting the problem is actually raising a personal grievance? Or even if this is a sign of outright uncooperative behaviour, or trolling.

Understanding how people might categorise problems will help you strategise how to frame those problems. If you can demonstrate that a problem does in fact have a solution, even if it’s challenging or complex, you can move forward on the issue.

So, what kinds of questions can we ask ourselves to help us frame these problems appropriately?

The first is extremely important, and one that people often miss: what behaviours can you capture that demonstrate the problem exists? Is there any way you can trace the incident? This could come in the form of Slack messages or email threads, for example.

The second question is about who the problem affects. Is the discomfort felt by just you, or are others included? Will it mean that people lose money? Or work more hours? Does the problem cause shame? Being cognisant to these factors will help you when you reach the next stage, which is communicating the problem.

Understanding how people might categorise problems will help you strategise how to frame those problems. If you can demonstrate that a problem does in fact have a solution, even if it’s challenging or complex, you can move forward on the issue.

Thirdly, you should ask where you think the relief will be felt when the problem is solved. It’s possible that many people feel the problem, in which case you have a diversity of perspectives on it.

Now that the problem has been identified, what are some potential blockers to speaking up?

Identifying a problem is just the first step; there are a lot of challenges to moving further through the process. Many people feel that reporting is pointless because nothing will change as a result. Or, they’re scared of retaliation: they don’t want to damage relationships or face legal repercussions.

One key barrier is not knowing how to communicate the problem effectively. Erika references a model in the book Difficult Conversations: when you’re speaking up about a problem, you’re not just having one conversation about it — you’re really having three:

  1. The first conversation should be anchored in understanding the problem itself: what happened, what are the different narratives surrounding the incident, what are the impacts, and who contributed to it.

  2. Your second conversation is about the feelings. Where do people feel that judgements are being made? This one is important because there will be resistance if people feel their emotions aren’t being considered.

  3. Then there’s the identity conversation. How has presenting this problem changed the way people see themselves and others?

Taking all these factors into consideration will help you create a space where people feel safe to approach a solution.

Once someone has spoken out, what can you expect from how people receive the problem?

With all the different contexts at play here, there are many ways that a problem can be received. Look out for different types of listeners:

  • Evaluative listening: where the listener takes everything and spins it into their own viewpoint

  • Assumptive listening: when a listener makes assumptions about the speaker's intentions and motivations.

  • Protective listening: when they’re so consumed with their own emotional experience that it makes them very resistive to actually listening

  • Judgemental listening: where everything that the speaker says is criticised.

  • Affirmative listening: where they only hear what they agree with

  • Defensive listening: the listener takes everything as a personal attack

  • Authoritative listening: the only reason the listener is paying attention is to give you advice.

So context is key throughout — there are all kinds of environmental barriers to truly listening. From the listener’s perspective, potential solutions could mean that they lose money, miss a deadline, or find their plans disrupted in some way. It’s possible that simply identifying this problem causes a cascade of other problems. These push-backs are important to consider when constructing your conversations

Another mechanism for overcoming resistive barriers to listening to concerns is instilling an emphasis on psychological flexibility.

How does this process inform organisational leaders on how to approach people who are reporting? Erika cites a book called Pro-Social when discussing how to reduce these barriers to listening: one thing this book talks about is trying as hard as possible to take in the perspective of the people you’re presenting the issue to; think about how they might cognitively and emotionally respond.


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Another mechanism for overcoming resistive barriers to listening to concerns is instilling an emphasis on psychological flexibility. A framework that organisations can utilise in order to increase psychological flexibility in their organisations is the Hexaflex model which is a acceptance and commitment (ACT) therapy framework. The framework outlines a variety of key facets necessary for psychological flexibility. Examining these facets ultimately makes it easier to listen to difficult conversations as well as create cultures of psychological safety for individuals reporting concerns.

Taking the proper steps to identify, address, and communicate a large problem is imperative to reaching a true resolution. The way you cultivate understanding around complex issues, and set expectations for how people will respond, is necessary for building trust — and, ultimately, for disarming people’s fight or flight response. Doing this well means you can move forward and enact change.


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