Telling People to Be Courageous vs. Making it Safe to Speak Up


I saw an interesting post on Linkedin recently, with a list of rules for a Kaizen Event team. It's a solid list but one point made me think — and that's what this post is about.

Hopefully you can see the image. The key “rules” shown there are:

  • Mutual respect — work as one team
    • Different people, experiences, ideas
  • Be tolerant
    • Out of the box ideas = creativity
  • It's the process, not the people
    • Look for flaws in the process = mistakes
  • Improvements can't be made in the room
    • Implement what we discover
  • Do not leave in silent disagreement = Speak Out!
    • Have the courage to challenge

Those are certainly all descriptions of the ideal environment (and culture) for improvement.

Again, that's a great list.

My comment on LinkedIn was this:

But, “Have the courage to challenge” is the ideal — that requires psychological safety, which starts with the attitudes and actions of leaders.

If I have gotten treated badly for speaking up in the past, you telling me to have “courage” might not be very helpful.

Others made similar points in the comments on the original post and my reposting of it.

Here are some related posts about the need to go beyond telling people to be courageous. Telling people they “should” speak up or that they “must speak up” might not really drive action.

Instead of focusing on those who are speaking up (such as labeling them as “uncourageous”), leaders need to think about their role in shaping a culture of psychological safety.

Here is a post about the “speak up for safety” program at General Motors:

And here's a post about medical professionals being afraid to speak up:

And here's another post looking at a different reason why employees might not speak up at work… if it's not due to fear, it might be the result of “futility” — it's just not worth speaking up, unfortunately.

Instead of asking, “Why aren't people speaking up?” (in a way that implies there is something wrong with them), leaders should be asking, “What can I do to make it safe to speak up?' and “What can I do to make sure speaking up is worth the effort or the risk?”

If speaking up doesn't lead to action… if people speak up and they're not listened to… they'll stop speaking up.

Leaders can break that cycle… but, again, it starts with them.

Another Excellent Post on the Topic:

Daniel Murphy wrote a great post that builds on what I shared here… very much worth reading and thinking about:

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.