Nutshell: Raising concerns: how to be a courageous communicator

Written by
Future Talent Learning

05 Oct 2020

05 Oct 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Speaking out about issues of concern is part of leader’s role, so how can we do this with confidence and respect, while protecting our relationships and careers?

More people in the US die from mistakes made by doctors and hospitals than from traffic accidents, asserts journalist and author Matthew Syed in Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth about Success.

He argues that to combat such disturbing truths, we need to learn how to confront and learn from our mistakes, redefining failure in order to unleash progress, creativity and resilience. Just as the aviation industry has a surprisingly good safety level because it interrogates errors rather than concealing them, so we need to bring our own workplace problems to the surface and address them proactively.

“[Black Box Thinking] is about creating systems and cultures that enable organizations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them,” he writes.

Of course, to learn from mistakes we need to own up to them – and sometimes to flag them in others. The higher we rise within an organisation, the more likely it is that we will need to have difficult conversations that involve raising concerns, ‘managing up’ and calling things out.

That’s not easy. Speaking truth to power takes courage because there are potential negative consequences to doing so – from temporary discomfort to social isolation, and even career damage. Handling these conversations also requires confident and skilful communication.

However, it’s valuable at both a personal and an organisational level. ‘Speaking-out cultures’ are good for business, enabling us to highlight behaviours that run contrary to company values, to issue timely warnings about flawed strategies or projects that have gone off course (nipping problems in the bud) and to flag up impractical deadlines or policies. They also build an atmosphere of trust in which new ideas and innovations can flourish.

Meanwhile, for us as individuals, speaking out in the right way can raise our profile in a positive manner, demonstrating our commitment and diplomacy. And, of course, it’s our moral (occasionally legal) duty to voice concerns about serious issues. The potential fallout of not highlighting suspected fraud or bullying, for example, clearly outweighs any disinclination to do so.

Ultimately, as leaders, we have a responsibility to help cultivate a supportive and psychologically safe environment in which we can raise minor or major concerns without fear of reprisals, and others feel safe to bring issues to us.

Even apparently minor incidents may escalate if not addressed at the right time. A colleague’s poor timekeeping may put an important contract at risk; slow invoicing by the accounts team may lead to cashflow problems that affect a business’s viability; inadequate health and safety measures on a film set can lead to tragedy. And as Syed points out, avoidable mistakes are regularly repeated in healthcare settings.

It’s therefore important for leaders to be sufficiently assertive, drawing attention to issues within the spirit of radical candour (which combines a forthright approach with compassion) rather than glossing over them in the hope that they might go away.

Becoming competently courageous

Understanding why we should raise concerns is one thing, but knowing when and how to do so is another. Daunting as it may feel to raise our head above the parapet, there are methods of communication and ‘competently courageous’ behaviours which we can develop and draw on to guide us.

First, we should ensure we adopt an assertive style of communication so that we express our thoughts with conviction and consideration, in a calm and polite manner, to establish a healthy and respectful dialogue. This represents the ‘Adult state’ in transactional analysis. Becoming heated, accusatory or passive-aggressive is only likely to backfire.

When raising concerns, ‘competently courageous people’ focus primarily on three things, according to professor James R Detert, author of Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work:

  • Framing their issue in terms the listener will relate to
  • Making effective use of data or evidence
  • Managing emotions in the room

“They connect their agenda to the organization’s priorities or values, or explain how it addresses critical areas of concern for stakeholders,” he says. “They ensure that decision-makers feel included – not attacked or pushed aside.”

Having spent more than a decade studying workplace courage, Detert has identified attitudes and behaviours exhibited by people who manage to create positive change without ruining their careers.

His findings suggest that those who succeed tend to have created the right conditions for action by establishing a strong internal reputation and improving their fallback options in case things go poorly. They also pick their battles, discerning whether a given opportunity to act makes sense – in light of their values, the timing, and their broader objectives – and maximise the odds of in-the-moment success by managing the messages and emotions. Afterwards, they follow up to marshal commitment and preserve relationships, no matter how things have turned out.

These steps are useful whether we’re pushing for major change or trying to address a smaller concern.

Take Anna, a middle manager in a large publishing company, who is concerned that a senior colleague, Richard, is showing notable favouritism to the sole male member of her team (James). This is causing resentment among his female colleagues, who believe it is unfair and fuelled by bias and sexism. It is leading to divisions in the team and damaging morale and discretionary effort.

Anna raises the subject with Richard during a catch-up to talk about a new project Richard wants James to lead. She suggests doing this over a coffee, outside of the office. During the conversation, she acknowledges James’ skills but highlights the need to develop other talented members of the team, reminding Richard of some of the many opportunities already offered to James, and the company aim of achieving gender equity at board level. She emphasises Hana’s relevant skill set, giving examples, and asks Richard who else in the team he rates, to encourage his buy-in.

Richard suggests Siobhan, and they agree to find a way of giving her more responsibility too, linking in her appointment with a wider initiative related to International Women’s Day. He gives the new project role to Hana, and Anna reports back positive results, explaining that morale of her team has also improved. Richard is impressed by the data and both he and Anna win praise from the c-suite for contributing to their wider diversity agenda.

Anna gets her points across because she is calm and constructive in her approach, and avoids accusing Richard of any personal biases (while warning gently that there’s a general danger that Richard’s ascent could be viewed in that way). She picks an appropriate time to discuss the issue, on neutral territory, and ensures it’s a two-way discussion rather than a rant about sexism, connecting her argument with company objectives. She also follows up, keeping Richard informed and updated with positive results supported by data.

Establishing good will

Detert stresses the value of “laying the groundwork” – putting effort into establishing a reputation for fairness and excellence and building relationships to create a “stock of good will”. Where we are considered competent and even-handed, we are more likely to be taken seriously when we raise a concern.

While sometimes we need to persuade in the moment, good timing can help our cause. We should clearly try to avoid bringing up difficult subjects when the other person is busy or stressed, note what else is going on around us, and take full advantage of events, trends or organisational initiatives that might support our efforts. For example, pushing for remote or flexible working in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is much more likely to be well received than it might have been in 2019.

It’s equally important to interrogate and regulate our emotions before we speak out, considering any personal (conscious or unconscious) biases that might relate to the situation. Previous things that have happened to us may colour our responses; antipathy towards certain colleagues or policies may also knock us off course. We all have biases and they can influence our understanding, actions and decisions in subtle but insidious ways.

When raising an issue, the secret lies in remaining in control, adopting a co-operative and constructive attitude. This involves focusing on the issue or problem at hand and how it can be addressed using evidence and data, rather than resorting to inflammatory language or personal attacks. The fundamental attribution error, for example, is a bias that leads us to blame other people personally when things go wrong, without taking situational factors into account.

Essentially, we should always ensure we are having a conversation with the other person, rather than overtly telling them what they ought to do (which rarely goes down well).

When and how to blow the whistle

In the most serious situations, there may also be organisational protocols to follow – for example, when highlighting personal grievances such as bullying or sexual harassment. Talking things through at an early stage can resolve some issues without need of formal action, particularly where miscommunication is involved; however, involving HR may be necessary, so it’s important to seek out policies designed to support us and ensure we understand when and how to refer to them.

This is certainly true when raising concerns about illegal or dangerous practices ­– or serious violations of organisational policies. Whistleblowing – the act of drawing public attention, or the attention of an authority figure, to perceived wrongdoing, misconduct, unethical activity within public, private or third-sector organisations – conjures up images of lone wolves fighting the system at the cost of their livelihood and reputation.

However, in the UK (and in many other countries), whistleblowers are protected by law, and should not be treated unfairly or lose their job when:

  • reporting a criminal offence (for example, fraud).
  • someone’s health and safety is in danger.
  • there is risk of, or actual damage to, the environment.
  • highlighting a miscarriage of justice.
  • the company is breaking the law (for example, it does not have the right insurance).
  • they believe someone is covering up wrongdoing.

While being in a position where we need to whistleblow is rare (and not something anyone covets), we do need to understand what constitutes a concern of this stature and how to report incidents under our employer’s grievance procedure or whistleblowing policy.

Received wisdom suggests that it’s usually best to raise issues internally before looking to external bodies, gathering evidence and presenting it in as calm a manner as possible. This may mean speaking to a supervisor or a specific manager we trust, contacting HR or approaching a specific department (for example, a financial concern may mean the audit department).

Concerns can be raised openly, confidentially or anonymously, and while anonymity sounds tempting, bear in mind that the former two approaches allow follow-up questions to be asked and action to be taken against any victimisation we experience. Both also mean that we can demonstrate blowing the whistle for the purposes of legal protection.

Where matters cannot be resolved in-house, we may need to take them outside of the business. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic – while restaurants in England were required to be closed – restaurant worker Jamie was told by his employer that they would be opening a takeaway branch of the existing restaurant and wanted the help of furloughed staff to run it.

Jamie objected and challenged this on the basis that it was against the Government Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and illegal. A few days later, Jamie’s employer produced a new idea to bypass the furlough scheme: to operate the takeaway business under a new shell company, lease the premises to it and appear to employ the furloughed staff. Jamie again expressed his discomfort and objected to the legality of this idea.

Jamie was advised by the UK’s whistleblowing charity, Protect, that he was right to raise his concerns in challenging his employer’s practices. However, as his employer was deliberately committing this wrongdoing at a senior level within the company, it seemed unlikely that Jamie raising the issue to them again would change their approach. So, he was advised to report the fraud directly and confidentially to HMRC, the UK’s tax authority.

Helping organisations to thrive

There’s no doubt that whistleblowing will cause waves, particularly if it involves a well-known organisation and swiftly goes public – as in the case of Frances Haugan famously taking on Facebook. But as the #MeToo movement has shown, deciding not to speak up can also come back to haunt people many years down the line.

Besides, a US study from 2018 found that whistleblowers ultimately help their organisations to perform better, playing a key role in cleaning up a company’s financial and corporate culture, and even improving profitability. Its criteria included financial reporting, sexual harassment and workplace safety. Researchers concluded that the more employees call out bad corporate behaviour, the less likely companies are to face legal action that results in big pay-outs of settlements and other legal fees.

This supports Syed’s belief that “the single greatest obstacle to progress is failing to learn from mistakes” and the argument that, to facilitate this, we must help shape ‘speaking-up cultures' that allow us to raise issues and redefine failure as something to learn from rather than cover up.

While making our voices heard in this way is stressful and challenging at the best of times, knowing how to do so, assertively, constructively and in a range of scenarios, is a skill that all good leaders should strive to develop ­– for themselves, their colleagues and the good of their organisations.


Test your understanding

  • Describe three benefits of ‘speaking-up cultures’.
  • Outline Detert’s ‘competently courageous behaviours’ and how they help us to raise concerns in the workplace.

What does it mean for you?

  • Familiarise yourself with your organisation’s grievance policies and consider how you would escalate a serious issue if you needed to.
  • Imagine that you need to have a courageous conversation at work. Make a plan that takes into account what you will say, how and your own feelings about the situation. Reflect on how such planning might help you approach any courageous conversation you might need to have for real.

Register for insights and updates or implement one of our levy-funded leadership programmes by clicking on the buttons below.