People & Human Resources

The bold and the brave: How to speak up against bad culture

Eve Ash /

It seems speaking up is (finally) getting the traction it deserves.

Whether it’s calling out sexist behaviour or airing a systemic wrong that has flourished unchecked for years, plain speaking is definitely having a moment. Julia Banks’ high-profile defection to the federal parliament crossbench a few days ago, and her eloquent speech about bullying in the Liberal ranks in the wake of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s dumping, paves the way for Julia to exercise her beliefs along with other political independents — hopefully continuing a tradition begun by the late Ted Mack.

Courage to speak up

We know speaking up requires courage — sometimes it’s even caused by clear-eyed despair.

It involves sacrificing long-held ambition, a preparedness to stand alone, and the willingness to demonstrate one’s principles. Speaking up doesn’t necessarily require stridency of expression. The late journalist and Indigenous campaigner John Newfong deployed considered language to make acute points that hit their mark.

Tough being a whistleblower

The penalties for speaking the truth to those in positions of power unfortunately remain high. Whistleblowers know calling out lies and deception is punishable by scapegoating, sacking and persecution. No whistleblower emerges truly victorious from their David and Goliath-like tussles — many are literally made sick by what they’ve experienced. Some never recover. A few, such as former Olympus chief executive Michael Woodford have the resources to back their emotional fortitude, but as he concedes, the threat of being crushed is seldom far away.

What underpins a bad culture?

Woodford’s observations about bad cultures — whether in business or socially — have a lot of resonance. Bad cultures have five characteristics.

  1. Group-think, where the giveaway is the amount of rah-rah expected among the ranks every time a manager or division leader kicks some ‘goal’.
  2. A culture of concealment, where activities are deliberately kept secret.
  3. Organisational dishonesty, where they deny to themselves what they are doing.
  4. A ‘shoot-the-messenger’ attitude, where those (such as Woodford) who discover inconvenient truths (the perfect metaphor, thanks to Al Gore) are summarily dragged before the office firing squad, usually without the opportunity to get an impartial hearing. The etymology of ‘kangaroo court’ isn’t Australian — it’s believed to have originated in the California gold rush — but what it does mean is leaping to an ‘outcome’ and intentionally ignoring the evidence.
  5. Double-speak, or in other words, the way bad cultures try to camouflage their practices with the very language used to profess honesty. So, you’ll see plenty of lip service paid to ‘accountability’, ‘transparency’ and even ‘leadership’. What you won’t see is almost anyone in those places actually doing it.  If you favour plain speaking, chances are you’ll have already noticed or been disconcerted by this atmosphere.  Human beings tend to mimic their surroundings — it’s less common for people to consciously differentiate themselves.

Speak up it is worth it

So, while there is now more publicised applause and ostensible support for speaking up, is it truly worth it?

The answer is yes, provided you adhere to the following six guidelines.

  1. Know how to fight. If you’re going to rush the plane’s cockpit, know what you’re doing. Do you have what’s needed to fight this fight, or will you be locked into a death spiral? Frequently, even now, bad companies would rather plunge screaming to the ground than admit they were wrong. If this isn’t you, then speak your piece and resign. Your energies might need conserving, for further down the track.
  2. Assemble your facts. Allegations need evidence, and where possible, witnesses.
  3. Seek the advice of a trusted and knowledgeable expert who, in turn, will keep you honest and clear-headed — because whistleblowers and plain speakers can become consumed by their battle and lose sight of tactics. With so much more media and legal attention given to corruption and sheer bad behaviour, there will be more allies for those speak (along with the denigrators).
  4. Methodically keep records and copies of your records. The old saying the ‘devil is in the detail’ is true, but it might also be what vindicates you eventually.
  5. Know that in speaking up, you won’t be warmly embraced for doing so by the majority. You could be isolated for some time, particularly when all sides are vociferous in their viewpoints.
  6. Remain realistic about the huge task you’ve taken on, and the consequences it can bring, not just for you, but also loved ones.

History is full of the bold, the brave and the principled who spoke up in dark times, sometimes losing their lives and livelihoods.

Thankfully, their timing has benefitted everyone, in ways that outlast whatever short-term gains the ‘victors’ thought they had. Like Goethe’s genius, speaking up really has boldness, power and magic— and more of us are certainly beginning it now.

NOW READ: Seven essential steps to create a thriving, respectful workplace culture

NOW READ: The 15 traits of ideal co-workers: How many do you know?

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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