By Sabrina Parsons
This year’s ‘Silence Breakers’ phenomenon does much more than shed light on the critical issues of sexual harassment, share of voice, and equality facing women in today’s society. The stories shared of the experiences of women serves to inform the way that various aspects of culture operate — and one arena that deserves our attention is the workplace.
But rather than discuss what should now be obvious hurdles: the still-present wage gap, the lack of equal opportunity in leadership and decision-making roles, etc., it’s imperative now more than ever to examine tangible solutions that can be implemented in the workplace today, not in 20 years.
Here are tangible solutions that companies — and leaders especially — can consider:
Reward ‘Silence Breaking’ at all levels
One of the biggest problems emphasized by this year’s Silence Breakers is the tendency that many have to treat speaking up like a burden rather than a benefit. When an individual comes forward to share about a serious problem or injustice, that behavior should be welcomed and rewarded — not punished, however indirectly. A strong company culture should have regular Silence Breaking, and it should come from all levels. This can be encouraged by recognizing, whether privately or in group setting, the individual who came forward with a valuable learning opportunity. If appropriate, make it known in your workplace when someone provides insights, whether the insight is critical or even a complaint, on how the company can improve.
A few ways to recognize team members:
- If your company is large enough, include encouraging shoutouts in a monthly newsletter or company update email that highlight how the company improved as a result of specific feedback.
- Consider rewarding one employee each year who spoke out on behalf of improving the culture with a monetary prize or valuable experience. Make this type of commitment to change and growth something that the team strives for or even competes on.
Host a monthly workplace assessment and opportunity meeting
Speaking up, reporting issues, or the now less-than-favorable term, “whistle-blowing” often takes place following an incident, not before or during. A strong culture allows conversation to unfold as the issue is taking place, not after. That being said, knowing too late is always better than never knowing, and every time an employee or leader speaks up about a problem there is an opportunity to learn and adapt.
At our company, our teams engage in regular “retrospective” meetings. These originated out of our Agile development process, but we have extended these meetings across all departments. The executive managers do not participate, and instead employees get together in groups of 8-10 people over lunch to discuss how their team and the company is doing across work product, process, communication, and overall company culture. At every meeting there is a scribe tasked with taking notes, and all notes are then passed on to the management team — anonymized without names. These “retro” meetings give employees a place to discuss how things are going and encourage them to talk about how the company can improve in various different ways.
Implement or update your leadership and culture review this year
If you already give your employees a chance to provide feedback, now is a great time to include space to get their input on how your company culture ranks in terms of rewarding rather than punishing ‘Silence Breaking.’ Possible questions to include could be,
- “How comfortable are you about speaking up in the workplace?”
- “Do you think that our culture rewards those who call out areas for improvement?”
- “Have you ever spoken up about an issue that was sensitive to you? If so, what was your experience?”
- “How can leadership do a better job at affirming those who speak out?”
- “How can leadership make it easier and safer for anyone to share their concerns?”
In your feedback survey, give people the chance to remain anonymous or list their name. Taking note of the number of “Anonymous” opt-ins alone will tell you something about your culture. Once you’ve had time to review all responses, use the survey outcomes to host a discussion based on the findings.
These are just a few starting points for leaders to try — but having a culture that is able to undo the negative associations with ‘Silence Breaking’ and instead reward those who speak up will take time, commitment, and consistency. This year’s Silence Breakers remind us simultaneously of the value of speaking up and the challenge that exists for everyone to support, not shun, a voice that needs to be heard.
Sabrina Parsons is CEO of Palo Alto Software, developer of the best-selling business management software, LivePlan. She is a staunch supporter of entrepreneurs, and supports entrepreneurial organizations. She is on the board of the Princeton Entrepreneurs’ Network (www.princetonen.org). Sabrina has chaired the Willamette Angel Conference twice. (http://www.willametteconference.com/). She is on the Board of Directors for RAIN, the Willamette Valley Regional Accelerator Innovation Network. She is a graduate of Princeton University.