Why Speaking Up in the wake of a global pandemic is not just about Speaking Up

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Why Speaking Up in the wake of a global pandemic is not about Speaking Up

Donna Hicks, author of Leading with Dignity, in a recent webinar entitled ‘A Matter of Power and Dignity: Resolving Conflict and Discrimination’, shared that when she carries out assessment of the ways in which employees feel their dignity is violated in their workplaces, the most common response, no matter where she is, is a violation of their sense of psychological safety. The employees are terrified of speaking up about the ways in which their managers and leaders have violated their dignity.

My question is this: are we missing a trick here? Are we doing enough to join up the dots between dignity, psychological safety and a Speak Up culture?  Why would we not want to honour the dignity of each other and unlock the best of ourselves through developing a safe and inclusive workplace?

Our World Today

Let’s put this into the context of today’s workplace environment and in the wake of a global pandemic.  A significant proportion of the workforce is scattered to the four winds, working remotely and in enforced isolation. And others have no choice but to travel to their workplace and therefore run the risk of being struck by COVID-19. Feelings of disconnection, anxiety, unrecognition, job insecurity, misunderstanding and a lack of acknowledgement are all potential downsides of our current dislocation.  Add to this the challenges of being able to honour and preserve one’s dignity, defined as ‘our sense of inherent value and worth’[1] by Hicks, at a time when our ability to connect and relate human-to-human is severely curtailed, then you begin to see the complexity of our predicament today.

We have become even more vulnerable to having our dignity violated – our sense of psychological safety is hyper-sensitive and super-alert to threats and perceived fear. Speaking Up suddenly feels like the worst possible course of action for us to undertake, especially in a time of uncertainty and unpredictability.

The Speak Up paradox

However, at a time when Speaking Up feels like the last thing you would do, the need to Speak Up is more important than ever.  The opportunities for inappropriate conduct and behaviour, such as internal fraud[2], bullying and harassment,[3] bias and discrimination,[4] have not gone away and are omnipresent, with an expected rise in allegations and investigations.  Reports and emerging trends are already proving this to be true.

And let’s not forget that Speaking Up is also an opportunity for positive action too – innovation, new ideas, creativity and experimentation all require the time and space to be heard, listened to, and taken onboard.  If your people are fearful of coming forward, voicing their ideas and collaborating to innovate, then we all lose out.

The Key to Unlocking the Speak Up paradox

The key to unlocking the Speak Up paradox is to create a climate where people feel safe and secure to use their voice, which in turn means that their dignity is honoured and valued.  It is about how we can bring out the best in people.  It’s not about Speak Up itself.  When people feel recognised, acknowledged, valued, respected, treated fairly, and their identity is accepted for who they are, that’s when the key starts to turn and we start to experience the best of ourselves and of each other.  And that’s only going to happen when leaders act with conscious dignity, when organisational justice and systems are fair, and when people are held accountable.

One of the, admittedly few, positive highlights emerging from this global pandemic is that when we allow our humanity to come to the fore and embrace a purpose that is greater than our own, then a sense of community and belonging is being deeply felt.  We will step up and we will not keep quiet.

We’ve seen this in the many altruistic activities that some organisations have committed to as part of the fight against the pandemic, such as the significant investment in global funds by Standard Chartered Bank to support businesses, communities and individuals.[5] And we’ve also witnessed the reaction of the media and wider society when, conversely, businesses are seen to be not acting in the best interests of society, such as the recent allegations of supply chain misconduct at Boohoo.[6]

Valuing our Dignity

What’s stopping us from continuing to tap into this collective human energy, to intervene for the wider good, to be active in raising our voices and Speaking Up? Only this: by not recognising our inherent value and worth that we are all born with, as equal human beings, and by not taking responsibility for our actions and our non-actions.

Surely, we’re worth more than that.

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/kathycaprino/2018/08/21/how-to-build-a-culture-of-dignity-and-what-happens-if-you-dont/#244d5ae46c17(accessed 23 July 2020)

[2] https://www.ey.com/en_uk/disrupting-financial-crime/financial-crime/covid-19-implications-internal-fraud (accessed 23 July 2020)

[3] https://www.hrmagazine.co.uk/article-details/cyber-bullying-in-the-workplace (accessed 23 July 2020(

[4]https://www.diversitybestpractices.com/sites/diversitybestpractices.com/files/attachments/2020/04/dbp_hot_topic_covid-19_bias_final.pdf (accessed 23 July 2020)

[5] https://www.sc.com/en/about/hereforgood/covid-19/ (accessed 23 July 2020)

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jul/08/boohoo-to-launch-independent-review-of-supply-chain (accessed 23 July 2020)

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