Speaking Up (Not Down): Why Innovation Cultures Can't Afford Your Silence or Negativity

The old children's fairy tale about the emperor's new clothes still conveys a powerful message - including for adults in the workplace. For those of you not quite up to speed on the story, it memorably describes how it took a child to say what no one else would about the emperor's new suit of clothes, or lack thereof. When we offer perspectives and ideas at work that challenge the status quo, we're contributing value. On the other hand, when we belittle ideas and points of view that cut against the grain, we become obstacles to change. And at a time when every organization needs all hands on deck to grow an innovation culture, we should get in the habit of speaking up (not down).

Speaking Up: The Power of Going Against the Grain. When people speak up, they're typically talking about a point of view that challenges the status quo. Encouraging your employees and colleagues to speak up and challenge the "typical" can often be the impetus your organization needs to do things differently and better. It forces us to look at the things we've always accepted as fact or tradition and to consider new approaches to old issues or problems. The problem with speaking up, though, is that it's hard to do. In many organizational cultures, a strong emphasis is placed on teamwork, harmony and efficiency, but this can be a troubling mindset for an organization that's looking for breakthrough thinking. After all, there would rarely be monumental change in any industry or culture if there weren't people willing to speak up.

Today, many companies are suffering from what I like to think of as a "communications virus" - it's an insidious affliction where a crippling sameness of ideas is rapidly spread through the organizational body by "yes men and women." This "virus" forces out other healthy, vibrant ideas, points of view and perspectives by morphing to elements of the organization's own culture. You can recognize its effect almost instantly if it's happening within your own company. It happens when a person with a new approach to a customer service issue is told that the team "already bought into the new system." It happens when a new idea is offered and the immediate reaction is to list the multiple reasons it won't work for the company. It happens when the big boss says something - no matter how silly - and everyone in the meeting agrees with the idea instantly. As management expert Peter F. Drucker wrote in his book, The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization, "If you have quick consensus on an important matter, don't make the decision. Acclamation means nobody has done the homework." Quick consensus can be a symptom of "communications virus" in an organization, if it isn't achieved after listening to all points of view. To cure your company's virus, make sure your voice is heard. Speak up.

Speaking Down: The Innovation Killer. In my mind, "no" can be one of the most offensive words in the English language. Wrongly placed and wrongly timed no's may have derailed more careers, stifled more innovation and destroyed more corporate value than any other factor. "No" shuts down a discussion, closes doors and ends exploration; it's the most powerful innovation killer in any organization, and what makes it even more insidious is that it comes in many forms - from "Well, that's interesting, but..." to "We couldn't possibly..." and a thousand other variations. Great ideas often start as fragile things. They need encouragement, some coaxing and a little bit of patience. Often, they need to be seen on their own terms, and that's hard for us to take the time to see as humans. It's hardwired into our brains to prefer the familiar to the novel. So, when we hear something that's outside of our realm of experience our instinct is to say no - to deny. Don't jump to no. Take the time to listen to what's said from a different vantage point. Don't challenge what's said right away; instead challenge your reaction to it. Ask yourself:

  • If this were my idea, how would I build on it?

  • What does the person who said this want me to see or understand that I haven't grasped yet?
  • Even though I might not like what I've heard or the person who said it, what's right about the concept? What can I get behind?
  • How can I encourage this person to describe what they're saying so I can see their concept as clearly as they do?
  • Of course, speaking up is a lot harder (and speaking down a lot safer) when organizations neglect to create and support the kind of culture that credibly encourages the former and recognizes the destructive impact of the latter. Innovation cultures just happen to do both, at all levels and in every part of the organization, making it a company-wide effort.

    So if you want to contribute to innovative change within your company and be a champion of new ideas, take a tip from an old fairy tale and speak up.