According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, not only is trust in decline globally, but this is especially the case for Australia; the 2018 survey revealed a decline in trust across all four key institutions, including media, business, government, and NGOs. In fact, institutions in Australia are now among the least-trusted globally.

This is a significant problem for the very social fabric of Australia. Trust greases the wheels of human interaction and without it, people often withhold their time, energy, and resources. A lack of trust makes social exchange time consuming, reducing efficiency and increasing costs. This is true for how organizations interface with customers or other stakeholders, leading to reputational damage, a loss of long-term advantage, and reduced customer satisfaction. It is also true for how an organization functions internally, leading to reduced employee wellbeing, a reduction in performance and innovation, and greater difficulty attracting and retaining talent.

Today, people expect more of their organizations and institutions. Take for instance new laws to be introduced around ‘modern slavery’, ensuring that companies make their supply chains transparent. The social licence to operate has become more expensive; people except that business can be both profitable and ethical. They are not only interested to know they are being treated fairly, but the organizations they invest in and transact with are treating others fairly as well.

Today building and maintaining trust is core business and this cannot be achieved through cheap slogans or hand-waving philanthropy. Organizations need to build ethical cultures internally and empower people to do the right thing, not to be seen to do the right thing.

We believe that to build an ethical culture, people at all levels of an organization need to recognize they often get it wrong and they need others to hold them to account. But how do you build accountability and transparency into an organizations culture? We believe that the key is good communication. People need to feel empowered to speak up when they feel that something is not right, to have an open and honest conversation, which is both heard and acted upon. This is not the same as ‘calling others out’ or ‘whistleblowing’ – it is about using open and honest communication to navigate and negotiate the grey areas, so that more serious misconduct is avoided. Whether it is slippery slopes, a failure to see the ethical dimensions to a problem, or an inability to acknowledge the negative impact of poor decision-making, grey area behaviour can become normative, spiral, and develop into costly incidences of malpractice.

The key is to build organizational capability to speak up and to listen when others raise uncomfortable, but important ethical issues. Yet, capability on its own is not sufficient. To enact these skills, people need to be surrounded by a climate of psychological safety and oversighted by a supportive leadership. We see these three elements as critical for building an ethical “Speak Up” culture.

Figure 1: The three foundations of building an ethical “Speak Up” culture

Supportive leadership is fundamental to building a ‘Speak up” culture. Leaders, at all organisational levels, need to set the example, openly discussing their own ethical questions and concerns, highlighting potential pitfalls in their decision-making, and to acknowledge when and where they have got it wrong. Leaders need to make feedback normal, and never tolerate retaliation when feedback is not received well. Leaders need to know how to listen and they need the skills to communicate their own ethical concerns in a way that is nonthreatening and invites ownership of behaviour from those in their teams. Most critically, leaders need to empower their employees to speak up.

A climate of psychological safety allows people to take risks, and to respectfully voice their concerns or disagreement. It is a climate of non-judgement, meaning that people need not feel threatened when others raise concerns, and those who do are not judged for making their thoughts and opinions known. It is a climate where people feel they can trust the intentions of others and where they feel they are part of a cohesive, inclusive, and supportive and team environment. A psychologically safe climate is one where people at all levels of an organization take ownership of the culture, and where accountability is feed up and as well as down the organizational structure. At the heart of this is giving people the confidence and capability to speak up.

Building capability is where the rubber hits the road in terms of how to engage in assertive, non-judgemental, non-reactive, but difficult and potentially uncomfortable conversations. It means providing people, across all levels of an organisation, with the tools to raise their concerns when they feel individual, team or corporate behaviour - either internally, or client facing, is challenging ethical standards, and building their confidence to put those tools to use. Fundamental to capability is self-awareness and good judgment. At a practical, not philosophical level, people need to be aware of their own ethical biases, understand their motivations for speaking up, be open to alternatives, and be humble enough to see they could be wrong. It does not mean speaking up about everything but using good judgement of what matters and why. It also means listening, asking advice, and seeking to understand others when they disagree. Speaking up is about starting a conversation, not ending one, and a signal that people are motivated to navigate the grey areas and to negotiate the culture of their organization.

We are excited by the opportunities that building more ethically aware cultures that foster open and honest communication can provide, and the various problems this approach can solve.

If you are interested in creating an ethical culture in your workplace and developing ‘speak up’ capabilities across all staff, please contact brock@ethicsapplied.com.au or david@ethicsapplied.com.au (see www.ethicsapplied.com.au for more details)

Dr Brock Bastian

RESEARCHER, AUTHOR, & SPEAKER

Dr Brock Bastian is an internationally acclaimed researcher, author, and speaker who has spent the last 15 years seeking to understand the psychology of ethical decision-making.

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