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While it is simple to say 'tell me anything', building a culture that genuinely allows it, is not easy. Most people care too much about their social status and material well-being to speak up to power. Halfhearted efforts and vague invitations won't do the trick.

I have worked at Philips for around a decade. As a professional corporation in a highly regulated industry, Philips has numerous & diverse ways for their people to share what's wrong. And still, the company is fighting several battles related to faulty respiratory equipment that puts users at risk of inhaling toxic foam. The devices are mainly for use in the home for patients with problems such as sleep apnoea, a disorder in which breathing stops and starts. While the crisis exploded in 2021, there is no doubt that people in Philips were (made) aware of issues years earlier. Did they speak up? Maybe. Were they heard? Clearly not. Philips is now sleep apnoea'd by regulators, patients, the markets, and public opinion. The health and monetary cost is enormous—the future of Philips, now 132 years old, aleatory.

What would have made a difference in Philips, as in other places, is to assure people that it is safe and worthwhile to contribute and speak up, no matter the topic, who they are, and where they sit across the organization.

McKinsey found in a number of studies that when people can voice their concerns freely, organizations see increased retention and stronger performance. So giving your people a voice pays off for the individuals who want to contribute and the organizations they want to improve.

While there is no one winning recipe for a blame-free speak-up culture, there are behaviors, processes, and ways of working to embrace and avoid. Here goes.

1. Avoid asking for feedback anonymously. Because when you do, people hear that 'It's not safe here to share your views openly. That's why we had to create other ways to get your feedback'. In some cases, it also complicates follow-up on what was shared while protecting the identity of those who shared.

2. Sit close to your people. It is hard for people to feel welcome and safe to share on your turf when they need to go to the corner office of the top floor of the building, passing closed doors, reception, a secretary, and what have you. When you feel your cheeks turn red now, ask yourself how often do my people see me on their turf. Do I know their name (yeah yeah, they know yours)? Do I know their challenges, both privately and professionally? Building a relationship with frontline workers makes it easier for them to approach you and speak up when needed.

3. This is a tough one, so let me phrase it carefully: find the right balance between sponsoring initiatives close to your heart and visibly having hobby horses. While sharing feedback with power is never easy, it becomes even more complicated when the subject is power's hobby horse.

4. Appreciate weak signals. What if the elephant in the room is so big that people only see a fraction of it? They might point you to a piece of its trunk, one leg, it's skin. Listening carefully and connecting the dots might tell you where and why you have quality challenges, which suppliers might not be as dependable as you thought, and which production steps can be more sustainable. Listening carefully to weak signals might clue you in.

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5. Be sensitive for the 'futility factor'. People may feel their feedback is futile compared to what's on their manager's plate. The behaviors shared here will reduce this 'why bother' mindset.

6. Model free expression. Be the voice in the organization you want your people to be. Your people have an excellent antenna picking up signals of their managers speaking up. If you don't share forward what your people shared with you without too much sugarcoating or filtering, your people will likely stop wasting their breath. Formal power comes with the expectation to speak up; not doing that is a huge demotivator. On the contrary: employees feel hugely inspired when they see their manager advocating for them.

7. Ask for goal-based input. You could want to seek input on a business objective: what is jeopardizing or could help achieve it? Risk or opportunities of a specific project. Pros and cons of particular strategies. If you are unclear about the type of feedback you want, the diversity of what you get back may be so wide that your only option is to disregard a lot of it, which doesn't motivate your people to speak up the next time.

8. Provide resources to follow up. There are many ways to do this. Allocate employees to read feedback. Create a systematic process to combine feedback items because they are alike—actions and projects to mitigate threats and capture opportunities. Failing to listen and follow up on what your people told you because of insufficient resources will show your people that speaking up doesn't change a thing.

9. Make speaking up regular, casual, and social in your organization. Can you imagine having a social process where people can like ideas, comment on feedback, and give kudos to those who share? Where feedback flows freely, so speaking up becomes natural and part of everybody's day-to-day? With the right culture and tools: such a work world can be achieved and is highly rewarding.

10. Reach out! The people closest to the threats and opportunities for the organization usually know what to do but are the furthest away from the resources, expertise, and power needed to act.

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And; the people closest to you will likely have the same background and perspectives as you. So cast the net wide when you reach out and talk to people. And include the newbies in the company, as they can often give you fresh perspectives on the strengths and weaknesses of the organization and feedback on how other companies organize themselves.

11. Last but not least: close the loop. Most people understand that an organization can do anything, but not everything. If you have been fighting for your people, a cause, or a project and only partly succeeded: explain why. Share the responses. Is some additional data needed? Or resources to follow up? Sharing this, and other barriers and boundaries you, and the people above you, are facing helps your people understand that they were listened to and their feedback embraced and worked on.

Although building a speak-up culture takes time and courage, the cost of silence is simply too high not to do so.