The ability to speak up

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The ability to speak up freely is a result of the elimination of Psychological UNsafety, but few people have the DNA for it and rather shut up. Once I was hired as a sport expert commentator for Eurosport. One year later I asked them if I could do it again for the competition ahead, but they said no. I asked why, and they said they had reduced the budget. But when I later met a friend from Eurosport I got the real reason. My criticism of the Swedish football association was too harsh and had made me persona non grata in the studio. I don’t regret that I took the opportunity to say my meaning when I had the attention from many people – and I still sleep well.

In the early stages of writing this book I submitted the above topic to a big Agile conference in Stockholm and was selected. But after a couple of feedback sessions on the early material I understood that this topic is not for polished and fact-based conferences. I was asked to remove some of the juicy parts but declined and withdrew my participation rather than not telling the stories that this book is about. This was the feedback I got:

“There’s a lot of very personal, and dare I say, sensitive information that may be good stories to share Friday night at the bar – when reading it, it feels a bit like reading the gossip pages and I am left with an impression that these people are exposed rather than presented as people with problems that you tried to coach them to solve. My advice is to be very careful here – both in respect of people, and also considering the backlash effect on you as the author. This kind of story telling about individuals is not really right for an experience report.”

The expectation was an experience report on eight pages along with a ten-minute presentation, followed by a QA session. Here I understood it was impossible for me to tell my story in such a small format and censor parts of it just to fit the format and audience. Also, I was expected to explain how I solved the problems included in this report. Yes, I challenge but that doesn’t solve any problem. It gets me fired and highlights the problems, which I hope will get their proper solutions later, when people understand Psychological Safety. Have you read the book “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? I have not, but I can identify with the kid in the book who, without fear of being seen as a fool, shouted to everyone that the emperor was naked.  I continue shouting and waiting to be a part of a great Psychological Safety implementation, and perhaps it will be a part of my next book? A remark from my side is that the person who gave me this feedback was a very experienced project manager but not an experienced Agile coach. I also noted the warning about the backlash effect. I assume the same effect reverend Bengt Pohjanen got when he told his church to wipe its ass with his resignation papers. I am willing to take this risk rather than censor my thoughts. Perhaps I’m not the smartest, but I sleep well.

Today I hesitate to speak up until others have spoken. The best impact comes when non-consultants (employees) put their feet down. But if Psychological UNsafety rules, I often challenge the room with questions rather than statements. These questions are often rhetoric and, as such, give the obvious answer but also start interesting discussions. Loudmouths like me must wait until others have spoken and, when I am the moderator, I allow for awkward silences to make room for those who are not so trigger happy. Someone said it takes eight seconds for our brain to put the pieces together for a great comment or answer and prior to this our reptile brain is just spitting out platitudes. If silence still prevails after eight seconds, I will pass the question to a person directly, but then most often the “don’t know” card comes up, and we are back to silence. After this silence it is time again for the Psychological Safety check I always do in the beginning of all meetings. We might have to abort the whole session, reschedule, and perform a separate Psychological Safety session first.

People have different personalities and find it more or less easy/hard to speak up in different forums. In order to enable everybody in the group to express their opinions verbally, you can create forums for Psychological Safety. One forum can be the Psychological Safety Community of Practice where people speak up about and discuss Psychological Safety. A chat group to start with, but later also physical meetings. Team size is another aspect. My ideal size for a team is 5 (+/-1). In small teams it is easier to voice your opinion. In other forums outside the team such as education, workshops, and town hall meetings, it is harder. Create small forums for speaking about success stories. A demo of a new feature for the team could be the icebreaker for shy or introverted persons to speak up and tell their stories. The format of the forum is also important. If it is an online meeting, you should expect a maximum of 10% to participate and less to understand what we are talking about. But a skilled moderator can reach up to 50% participation in a physical meeting. So, make the sessions small and physical whenever possible.

With personality there is not much to do except to acknowledge that some people will never speak up, which has to be okay. But some of them might have Imposter syndrome (explained later), like myself once, so a way forward can be to inform them about this personally, so they are aware of this diagnosis. With this book I air things I have experienced but previously hesitated to tell. Of course, I understand the risk of being candid by exposing myself as the troublemaker some people see me as. My comfort in doing this comes from experience and the fact that I have just a few years left before my retirement. Perhaps candour comes with age?

Speaking up can be hard, but when you have the guts and the Psychological Safety to do so, you sleep very well at night. But if, for some reason, it is not possible to make your voice and opinion heard, we can always use the whistleblowing service that serious companies have as a substitute. I have never tried one though but perhaps I should have.

This is a part of the book Psychological UNsafety from the trenches you can order or read more about here.