Find Your Voice

First published on the NHS Do OD blog.

I was thinking about the subject of ‘voices’ recently. I don’t mean the physiological aspect of speaking or how audible certain voices are. I am referring to our ability to voice what we think, what values we hold, and what we institutively feel – both at work and in our personal lives.   I find it strange that so many of the competent, professional people I meet find it hard to ‘voice’ their views about specific professional matters. Recently I was working with a group of 50 senior HR people. They all knew why their organisation was failing, yet none of them felt it was their role to share their analysis or their proposals with their seniors (in spite of the possibility they may all lose their jobs if the organisation failed). I asked why not and many of them said, “they won’t listen to us” or “in this company, it’s best to mind your own business” or “we are not close enough to get through to those people” or “the project team will fix it; we do not need to get involved.”   

One particular senior group who would not speak the truth at all about their organisation gave me even more reason to worry: “I will be ostracised if I push my leaders”; “opening things up and involving people is not a desirable thing to do”; “you have to guarantee a positive outcome before you get me to say what I want to say”; and finally, “executive leaders do not want what we have to offer.”   

This reminds me of the Challenger disaster case in 1986. When the spacecraft blew up in the sky soon after it took off, the investigation committee found that more than 30 people had known that the shuttle should not be launched, but they all refused to ‘voice’ their doubts or make their voices audible (even though they spoke to each other but not to those individuals who could have done something about it). Their reasons were quite similar to those listed above and as a result, the United States’ space programme was being put years behind schedule.   So, instead of exploring further as to why people find it hard to voice their professional judgement and voice of value, I want to focus on how we (especially internal OD practitioners) can strengthen our voices and make it a habit to speak our voices.  

Step One – focus on the collective good and the results that can be achieved by you sharing your voice.   

One of the professional obligations for us OD practitioners is to ensure we are there to serve the greater good by strengthening the organisation, which is mandated to do well for the people they serve, to ensure the viable future of the organisation, and to uphold the ethical standards of the current practices…etc. Start by asking yourself what mandate your organisation has and what you do to fit into the bigger scheme of things? Would those things be compromised if you do not voice your view? Often it is by focusing on the ultimate purpose and results within your organisation’s mandate that you will gain the courage and strength to do something that feels risky. Also ask yourself what would the negative consequences be if you kept your voice inaudible?

Step Two – gather some more data to ensure your voice is robust – overcome the doubts you have.   

You can counter our timidity to voice your view by checking out facts and figures. By testing your view with others you can see whether what you want to say has credibility and a strong basis. If not, go and gather more data as having facts will enable you to hold your own position and feel grounded even facing a tough debate. Also if you have robust data, it becomes your duty to raise your voice and make people face the “so what” questions – i.e. in light of what the data tells us, so what? – the implications for us. Then they can be guided into the now what question – what do we need to do to address or improve the areas of concern? Currently how many areas of concern or areas of greater aspiration do you have where you have robust data to raise the issue and you have not yet done so? Think about what may be the probable consequences if you do not.   

Step Three – practice straight talking.   

Saying things in a convoluted way in this complex world is no longer an option, as there is just too much information held by too many parties which are required when making robust decisions. Without everyone adding in their puzzle piece, the decision will be compromised.   Straight talking does not need to be rude nor aggressive which is often associated with the concept. In fact, straight talking can be done with such graciousness, courtesy and humility via the art of inquiry. For those of us who spend time listening to all the implicit and covert stuff in communication we can literally hear the meaning behind the convoluted way of speaking, but if you have important information, it is your duty to communicate the message clearly to those who can do something about it.   In this complex work, for those of us who are working to build healthy organisations in which relationships are a priority, this is an area where we all need to do better.   

Step Four – strengthen your self-system so that if others do not react well to what you say, your world doesn't collapse.

I think one of the reasons we cannot voice our view is that we spend a lot of our time being self conscious about how others will see us. We want people to value us, like us, approve of us and see us as competent hence anything that may get in the way of people’s positive acceptance of us will be self exorcised out of our behaviour portfolio.   So…while all our identity depends a lot on how others may react to us, it is possible for us to do something to build our ego strength so that we will move towards saying what we care deeply about and think clearly about. As an employer, I often worry about what I will lose out in terms of quality ideas. As a colleague, I worry about what the team will be missing out if no one is there to challenge the group to think. Finally, I do worry about the cumulative effect on people’s self esteem and their integrity as people if, over time, they continue to make compromising their voice a habitual practice.   

Final Word

Knowing how complex the NHS world is – and where daily decisions are made about human life - it literally can be a “matter of life and death” (as Professor Michael West calls one of his articles) if we professionals do not educate others and speak out. The time has come for all of us – to either begin making your voice heard or to scale the impact of our voice up a couple of notches, to ensure the organisation you work will continuously move towards great health and effectiveness. The NHS, such a critical institution, needs the impact of your voice. Try using a notebook to put down all the ideas, areas of concern, areas that are rendering your organisation vulnerable, and areas that your organisation can be scaled up to have even greater impact in patients’ life.....etc. and then find opportunity to up the strength of your voice.   

Take Peter Senge’s advice by setting up a two-column piece of paper. Put in one column what you really want to say to someone, and in the other column what you actually said to them to track whether there are discrepancies between the two. Then think about the cumulative impact your inability to voice your view will have on the relationship, yourself, and the situation. Another thing is to start scripting what you want to say so that you will practice using your voice.   Learning to say what we mean is often the catalyst which can push a group, an organisation into a different level of functioning. Start to make plans to make your voice heard. It is a life development journey. Enjoy the freedom that comes when you can finally say what is in your heart and mind. But more importantly, because of your professional competencies and judgement, the NHS needs your VOICE.