How great leaders encourage a speak up culture

If there is one topic that I work with time and again with my clients, it's this - creating an open, honest and transparent culture. On the surface they may appear to have an open culture - sharing business updates, communicating through formal channels and having regular performance conversations, yet gossip, miscommunication, failed performance and disengagement still exists. How so?

What the leaders want is an environment where people speak up about problems, identify solutions, share their ideas and contribute to business performance because they care. What they often experience is them having to do all of the heavy lifting, solve the problems and make all of the decisions. Here are some of the key steps they can take to get what they want.

How to create a speak up culture


Trust. Your people need to trust that when they speak up, they won't be judged, penalised or punished for doing so. This psychological contract is critical for any high performing business. Once the contract has been broken, it takes a lot of time and relationship building to recover, often never healing fully. 

Memebrs of the team might stay silent for a whole host of reasons. Usueally because they feel safer maintaining consensus or avoiding conflict. It's grounded in fear of the consequences. Our greatest fear is rejection from a group or from someone we look up to - our leader.  We are social creatures and our need to belong often overrides our desire to speak up.

The leader must set the intention and role model trust. They set the intention that no one gets to be right or wrong, and that no idea is a bad idea. They set the boundaries and rules of engagement about how to speak up, and then become the "enforcer" and role model. 


Be Accessible. Of course you can't be available to all people at all times - you'd never get anything done. However, when you do give your people the time to speak, listen with two ears, without judgement, and with empathy. Get curious and  inquisitive. 

As a leader, find ways for your people to connect rempove hierarchal barriers and go into their space rather than having the open door policy which means you own the space.


Relax the formality. Remember the dreaded exams at school, the stress and anxiety which accompanies it? That isn't the enviroment for creativity, openness and innovation. If you want to create a speak up culture, create the right environment. If you are brainstorming ideas, over plan time. Nothing supresses creativity more than a stop watch. Allow people to go over time if they are onto something, but faciliate the conversation to keep it on track too.

And importantly - leaders speak last. You set the question ortopic then hold back and keep your ideas to yourself. Allow others to solve the problem - empowering and developing them. Just because you know the answer doesn't mean you have to give it, thus conditioning the top down approach to solution finding. Your job as a leader is to extract all of the ideas and then have the courage to make an informed decision.

And if you really want people to speak up - be preapred to hear things that are uncomfortable. Have the humility to knowthat you get things wrong sometimes. You might be the block or barrier in some instances, so be courageous enough to hear the feedback without challenging or justifying (sure way to shut people down). Finally, know that often, the hive mind is far more effective and can present better ideas or solution than you can on your own. Time to leave your ego at the door.