• James Walton

Are Your Employees Afraid to Speak Up?

One of my children was born via C-section, and I was alongside my wife in the operating ward. It was a routine, scheduled procedure. The surgeon gave a brief introduction to the attending nurses and then announced the time of the first incision.


Just before he cut, one of the nurses spoke up to voice a concern that the pre-surgery checklist had not been complete. Procedural communication to identify the patient and name the purpose of the surgery needed to be communicated. The surgeon immediately shut it down, flexing his seniority and rank to proceed as he saw fit. The surgery continued and my baby was born moments later.


All was well with my baby, but I often wonder if that nurse ever spoke up again.

What I witnessed in the surgery ward is a common workplace dynamic: those with power and positional authority exercise it as a means to advance their agenda.

One of the unintended consequences of this reality is that lower level employees often don't feel safe voicing the input an organization needs to grow and learn.


The work culture in the US values "doing and telling" more than "asking and listening." Task accomplishment is more highly valued than relationship building. Those who are the best at accomplishing things, or who carry specialized skills, or who are the highest paid, can easily overrule others. Beware the danger of the HIghest Paid Person's Opinion (HIPPO).


Here's how to overcome this and create a culture that values asking and listening as much as doing and telling.

  • Own Your Emotional Disposition: Develop a firm commitment to actually helping your team, bringing a great deal of honest curiosity, a caring attitude, and a willingness to find out what is really on the team member’s mind.

  • Build Trustworthy Character: Trust is formed when someone else can reliably predict your behavior in a given circumstance. State your objective on how you intend to behave and give your team permission to flag you on behavior inconsistent with your intentions.

  • Be the First to Move: Especially in high power/status differential positions, be the first to disclose something revealing or vulnerable. This will help create connection and trust. When decision are being made, however, be the last to speak.

Where have seen positional authority misused? Is there ever a place for it?


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