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Building a Culture Where Employees Feel Free to Speak Up

You can't just speak a speak-up culture into existence. Doing so in the absence of psychological safety is actually an abdication of leadership and an admission of failure. Tim and Junior talk about the four separations presented in Tim's article that create the conditions to give all employees a voice and motivate them to use it. They are: (1) separate worth from worthiness, (2) separate loyalty from agreement, (3) separate status from opinion, and (4) separate permission from adoption.

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Episode Show Notes

In this episode of Culture by Design, we're talking about building a culture where employees feel free to speak up. This episode comes to you from an article Tim published recently on HBR with the same title. You can't just speak a speak-up culture into existence. Doing so in the absence of psychological safety is actually an abdication of leadership and an admission of failure. Tim and Junior talk about the four separations presented in Tim's article that create the conditions to give all employees a voice and motivate them to use it. They are: (1) separate worth from worthiness, (2) separate loyalty from agreement, (3) separate status from opinion, and (4) separate permission from adoption.

What's the opposite of psychological safety and speak-up cultures? (03:11) Rhetorical reassurance in the absence of true psychological safety is an abdication of leadership and an admission of failure.

Why do we want speak-up cultures? (10:21) Tim and Junior explain how speak-up cultures improve safety and compliance, improve decision-making, and increase innovation. 

Why are speak-up cultures hard to create? (11:57) Speaking up is a highly vulnerable behavior. We gathered 50,000 data points on people's experiences with vulnerability at work. Tim and Junior explain the significance of the data in the context of challenging the status quo.

Separate worth from worthiness (17:36) Worth is based on your intrinsic inherent worth as a human being. Tim and Junior explain why speaking up is not a matter of worth, and how separating worth from worthiness helps us create a foundation of inclusion.

Separate loyalty from agreement (28:39) When loyalty becomes contingent on agreement, it produces manipulated conformity, which isn’t loyalty at all. True loyalty, which refers to genuine concern for and dedication to the best interests of an institution and its people, must not only allow, but encourage, independent thought.

Separate status from opinion (34:53) Smart people don’t make a smart team unless they can harness their collective intelligence. We harness collective intelligence by inviting and processing dissent. How do you do this? Teach and model the art of disagreement (both how to disagree and how to be disagreed with).

Separate permission from adoption (43:29) Some people mistakenly believe that to be heard is to be heeded. Of course, in organizations, this is not possible. The organization can’t say yes to everyone. It has to constantly make tradeoff decisions in the allocation of its resources. Remove the misconception that permission to speak up somehow translates into an obligation to adopt the suggestion. And, in the absence of adoption, emphasize recognition.

Important Links:
HBR Article: Building a Culture Where Employees Feel Free to Speak-Up
The Ladder of Vulnerability Data

Episode Transcript

0:00:02.4 Producer: Welcome back Culture by Design listeners. It's Freddy, one of the producers of the podcast. In today's episode, we're going to talk about building a culture where employees feel free to speak up. This episode comes to you from an article Tim published recently on HBR with the same title, you can't just speak a speak up culture into existence. Doing so in the absence of psychological safety is actually an abdication of leadership and an admission of failure. Tim and Junior will talk about the four separations presented in Tim's article that create the conditions to give all employees a voice and motivate them to use it. The four separations are separate worth from worthiness, separate loyalty from agreement, separate status from opinion, and separate permission from adoption. As always, links to this episode, show notes, including a link to the article can be found at Thank you for listening and thank you for your reviews. Enjoy today's episode on building a culture where employees feel free to speak up.


0:01:16.3 Junior: Welcome back, everyone to Culture by Design, my name to Junior. I'm here with Dr. Tim Clark and today we'll be discussing speak up culture and why, as the title describes, it's risky business. Tim, how are you doing? 

0:01:27.4 Tim: I'm doing great. I'm looking forward to this conversation.

0:01:30.0 Junior: I know. It should be a good one.

0:01:32.7 Tim: Yeah.

0:01:33.6 Junior: Tim recently published an article in the Harvard Business Review called why speaking up is risky business. And Tim, in the introduction, you talk about a CEO who took the stage to talk about their employees survey results. Can you share that story? 

0:01:46.3 Tim: Sure. Well, actually, this has happened more than once, I've witnessed this more than once, but what happened is the CEO... Well, first of all, he got up to call an all hands meeting, got up to speak in front of everybody and talked about survey results for one specific survey item. And the survey item was, I feel safe to speak up, and the survey results were not good at all where more than half of the employees either disagreed or strongly disagreed with that statement. So what would that indicate? That would indicate a culture of pervasive fear.

0:02:23.0 Tim: So in response to that, what does the CEO say? He says, well, it's very clear that we need to create a speak up culture. And so that's exactly what we're going to do, and we're going to do that right now. And so today, the speak up culture begins, it begins today, and we need your honest input, we need your candid feedback, and so here we go. Okay, how would you react to that situation? So I nearly fell off my chair because that's not how it works. A leader who approaches an organization this way is either culturally tone deaf or managing optics, right Junior? You can't speak a speak up culture into existence. Anyway, what do you think about that? 

0:03:11.3 Junior: Yeah, you said at the end, you said rhetorical reassurance in the absence of true psychological safety is an abdication of leadership and in admission of failure. And those are pretty strong terms.

0:03:22.4 Tim: They are.

0:03:23.5 Junior: And I'm wondering why you chose those two. So maybe walk us through those, an abdication of leadership, and then an admission of failure. Why those? 

0:03:31.7 Tim: Sure, let's take them one by one. First of all, the leaders, any leader over any unit, a formal leader, someone that's in a management role, you are responsible for conditions. That's your job, you are the chief cultural architect, and if those conditions, healthy conditions don't exist that allow people to speak up, that's your responsibility. If there's a culture of fear, that's your responsibility, that's not anyone else's responsibility. Now, do they contribute to it? Sure, they do. Are they co-creators in that climate and atmosphere? Sure, they are, but you're the chief cultural architect. So, if that's not present, if those conditions do not prevail, that's on you, that's an abdication of leadership.

0:04:21.7 Tim: Number two, if you go to the organization and you say, "Oh, we're gonna have a speak up culture and it begins now, it starts today," well, that's an admission of failure. You are speaking from a condition of failure. And so any statement like that is an admission of failure because it's a reflection of you, it's symptomatic of your leadership. Right? If you're in any kind of an organizational unit where there is pervasive fear, that is a reflection of your leadership, so that reflects poor leadership every time. You can't blame that on anyone else, that is a direct reflection of the leadership on that team or in that organization or in that department. So I know that's strong language, it's an abdication of leadership and an admission of failure, but I don't know how we'll come to any other conclusion about that.

0:05:19.4 Junior: Well, and the admission of failure could be unwitting.

0:05:23.4 Tim: Yeah.

0:05:24.1 Junior: And in many cases it probably is. Some leaders approach those types of conversations with reasonable intent, and they acknowledge that, yes, there's a problem, but they're not... They're ignorant to a lot of the things that have to be true in order for that to be true, in order for the speak up culture to really thrive. And so that's the purpose of our conversation today is to understand why it's risky business, why would an organization's survey results look that way, and by the way, many organization's survey results look that way. And what can we as leaders and organizations do to make it less risky, how can we create the conditions such that our survey results aren't 50% disagreeing with that statement. And so let's get into why we would want... Tim, go ahead.

0:06:16.6 Tim: Yeah. I Just... Before we jump into it, I wanna go back because you just prompted a thought, it's an admission of failure if you don't have that, but you said, well, they may not be... A leader may not be aware of that. You can't rely on that excuse, you're responsible to be aware, it's your job to monitor and shape and nurture the culture, so if you're not alert, if you're not attentive, if you're not vigilant, your awareness is your job. So once again, you can't delegate that responsibility and you can't claim ignorance or, oh, I wasn't aware. That's your job, to be aware. So there's no leader that can say, oh, well, I'm sorry, I just wasn't aware of that. And so therefore, maybe it's someone else's responsibility or I apologize. It doesn't matter. It's still your responsibility. It always comes back to you whether you're aware of it or not, and if you're not aware of it, well, that just reinforces the fact that you're aloof, that you're detached, that you are somehow not engaged and aware of what's going on.

0:07:36.5 Junior: And I think that awareness could be broken out into two categories. One, awareness that it's your responsibility and two, awareness of the conditions that exist today. Those two things have to be true, and if you have one without the other, it's not going to be enough, so you need to square up to the responsibility that's yours of owning the cultural outcomes. And then two, making sure you understand what the culture is doing today and where the gaps are and what you need to do to close those gaps.

0:08:06.5 Tim: Yeah, I'll just say one last thing here, junior. No leader has special dispensation from this responsibility, no leader. [laughter] You cannot claim special dispensation that, you know, it's okay because I have other strengths, or I have focus on other things, or I delegate that responsibility. Can't do that. It's squarely your responsibility.

0:08:31.6 Junior: I'll emphasize that because I've seen that enough to also believe that it's true, and the other skills piece is what stands out to me. And often we'll give people a pass because of their technical expertise, and we say, well, it's okay this, we need to keep this person around, they're terribly important for what we're doing, and we'll just buffer them. And one of the risks that I think we run today is by glamorizing some of those leaders at the top of organizations that are very skilled, that do have amazing track records, yet abdicate their role, as cultural leaders, as cultural architects. And what happens, not just in for-profit institutions, but any organization, is they have to build layers in between those leaders and the rest of the organization, they have to insulate them. And that's a waste of resources, it's a waste of attention, it's a waste of opportunity. And it has to be that way in order for the organization to move forward. But should that leader decide to change and become a healthy cultural architect, everyone would be better off, including the leader themselves.

0:09:44.7 Tim: Yeah, that reminds me Junior of a CEO... Well, [laughter] an organization that I know where people love to say, oh, the CEO is brilliant, but yet culturally is a train wreck, and they will not speak up in his presence, they will not do it. There's a culture of pervasive fear, there's anything but a speak up culture, but they just love to say, oh, he's brilliant, he's really good at what he does. Really? Maybe in some ways, but certainly not in building a culture. As a cultural architect, he's a disaster.

0:10:21.9 Junior: Well, the last couple of episodes, we've talked about cultural competence and technical competence, and those are not mutually exclusive. It's not that you have one and not the other. You should have cultural competence and technical competence, and that's something that we should all aspire to, it's something that is possible, and that's what I think is so exciting about the prospect of getting involved in this work, 'cause you can become really, really good at both, and those are the most influential leaders that exist. And if you truly wanna influence, you need both of those things, you need to be very good at culture and very good technically. So why do we wanna speak up culture in the first place? We've just been talking as if it's important, but why? Why the assumption? Well, we need good information, and I think that that's largely what it comes down to, we need good information, we want a good feedback loop, so that we can improve safety and compliance, we improve our decision making, we increase innovation, we decrease the tolerance for misbehavior. There are a whole bunch of things that come along with speak up cultures. And those are just a few.

0:11:32.2 Tim: Junior, retention, engagement, employee health and wellness, physical safety, to me, think about the whole list of outcomes that are connected to having the speak up culture.

0:11:43.2 Junior: Oh yeah, once you go to the second order consequences, it just balloons and becomes exponential, and this touches every piece of the organization and every component of work life. So we want these speak up cultures, but the kicker is that they're hard to create.

0:11:57.0 Tim: They are.

0:11:57.4 Junior: Now why? Why are they hard to create? Because speaking up is a highly vulnerable behavior. How do we know this? Because we gathered 50,000 data points that help tell us so. And we've talked recently about the ladder of vulnerability, if you haven't taken the free self-assessment, go do it so that you can see your own ladder, but here are the six most vulnerable behaviors on average from the ladder of vulnerability. Number one, giving an incorrect answer. Number two, making a mistake, number three, expressing your emotions. Number four expressing disagreement. Number five, pointing out a mistake, and number six, challenging the way things are done. So as I've listed those, what do you notice? Tim, what's the common thread through these six? 

0:12:46.5 Tim: Well, they all go back and relate in some way to speaking up, in your comfort level in speaking up. Now, let's just remember that we measure in the ladder of vulnerability survey, we measure 20 behaviors, and what you've just shared with us, Junior, are the six most vulnerable behaviors of the 20 in rank order, from most risk on down, but these are the top six. And so what do we conclude? That if you look at these six, as you just mentioned, speaking up lives at the intersection of these six behaviors. And so if you're asking everyone in an organization to speak up, you are asking them de facto, in essence, you are asking them to engage in the six most vulnerable behaviors. That's what you're doing.

0:13:42.5 Junior: Yeah, I think it's interesting because you're saying give incorrect answers, make mistakes, express your emotions, express disagreement, point out other people's mistakes and challenge the way that we do things here.

0:13:53.3 Tim: That's right, that's right.

0:13:56.1 Junior: And people look at that and they equate those six behaviors with putting their job at risk, and so you're explicitly asking them or implicitly asking them to put their job at risk. And people don't wanna do that, they fear being fired, and so naturally, you can see why this becomes so difficult, yet we need it. And the crux of the issue here that we're going to dive into is that without psychological safety and these four categories of separation that we're going to get into, the conditions will never be such that speaking up is protected. You can't have conditions that encourage those six behaviors without psychological safety and without the four separations. So people won't take us up...

0:14:46.4 Tim: Junior.

0:14:47.7 Junior: Yeah.

0:14:47.9 Tim: Let me come back and let's just talk about how much we get into almost science fiction and fantasy, if we go back to the original scenario that we laid out, where the CEO goes to the members of the organization and says, "Here are the survey results, and there's pervasive fear, and we're going to have a speak up culture, and it starts right now, it starts today." And that translates into, as you said, giving an incorrect answer, making a mistake, expressing your emotions, expressing disagreement, pointing out a mistake. And challenging the way things are done. And we want you to start doing that right now.

0:15:27.5 Tim: Excuse me? This is fiction. This is fantasy. So just go do that, just go engage in the six most vulnerable behaviors because I said that we're starting the speak up culture right now? What could a leader possibly be thinking in approaching the organization that way? That's surreal, right? Because what we've done is systematically measure vulnerable behaviors to understand what speaking up really translates into. It's astonishing, isn't? The leaders go to their organizations and try to decree the speak up culture into existence.

0:16:11.6 Junior: Yeah, we talked last episode that it's not rhetorical reassurance and yet that's so often what leaders do. And one of the things that strikes me about this invitation or this command to speak up is that the organization is asking its people to respond irrationally because every employee is looking around, they're doing their risk reward calculation, and they're saying, "Well, is it safe here, what would happen if I do this?" And if there's been enough fear in the environment, they've done enough of their risk reward calculation to come to the answer, oh, I'm just gonna be quiet and I'm just gonna stay over here in my corner, I'm gonna do the minimum necessary in order to not get fired. I'm gonna fly under the radar. And so when the organization then comes and says, no, no, no, don't do that, we need you to speak up, they look at that invitation and they say all of the data that I've gathered over the last, who knows how long, tells me that that's a really bad idea.

0:17:20.3 Tim: That's right.

0:17:21.9 Junior: And so the organization is saying, hey, please respond irrationally to the your risk reward calculation. And people are not going to do that.

0:17:30.4 Tim: Disregard that.

0:17:32.0 Junior: Yeah, just put that aside.

0:17:35.1 Tim: Just throw that away. [laughter] Okay.

0:17:36.0 Junior: And in many cases, there could be a stack of evidence, there could be years of work and years of interaction that tells them that it's not safe. And those things do not turn on a dime, those types of environments are difficult to change overnight, and certainly they can't be done by decree. So fear has scared these people into silence, and superficial collegiality is a term that you've used before. I really like that. You've called it artificial niceness as well, and so, yeah, we're polite, we're nice, and we do what we need to do to get through our day, but there's not a sense of deep belonging and we're not relating as well as we could be to our colleagues. And so let's say that this is the place that we're in, or let's say that we're somewhere short of perfection, there are some things that we can do and that's where we wanna spend some time, there are four separations. I really love the way that you laid these out. The first one is separate worth from worthiness. So Tim, maybe you could help us with this one, help us understand what the difference is between worth and worthiness.

0:18:50.0 Tim: Sure. Right, so let's make this distinction. Worth is based on your intrinsic inherent worth as a human being. It's fixed. It is a constant, it is disconnected from what you say or do, it's based on the fact that you're part of the human family, that's what worth is all about. And so what we're saying is that the first separation that you need to make in the organization is to separate worth from worthiness, to establish the fact that everyone has fixed inherent intrinsic worth, and that their inclusion as a member of the organization or team is based on that worth. It's not a matter of worthiness. Now, worthiness is something different, worthiness means that we can apply a performance test to you. The basic definition of worthiness is that you are good enough for something. You're good enough for something.

0:19:58.4 Tim: Now, when it comes to assessing skills, it's legitimate for us to apply a worthiness test to you. For example, maybe you're in the area of customer service. Okay. Do you have the skills required to do that job? We need to apply a worthiness/performance test in order to perhaps give you that kind of a role. And that makes sense, and that's appropriate. But what we're trying to do first is establish a foundation of inclusion for everyone in the organization. How do you do that? By applying a worth test. We apply a worth test to each other, and if you are human and you don't present the rest of the team members with a threat of harm, then you're in. You're in. We have a moral obligation to include you, to invite you into our society.

0:20:53.5 Tim: If we make this distinction as separation, if we separate worth from worthiness right from the beginning, we are able to create that foundation of inclusion. If, on the other hand, we apply a worthiness test to each other as it relates to inclusion, then we immediately begin to marginalize some people, exclude some people, sow the seeds of division. So we have to separate worth from worthiness. Worthiness, that's not what we're... We're not going to apply worthiness right now. That comes later with performance tests that are appropriate. But for now, when it comes to inclusion, it's about worth, it's about applying a worth test. That's the distinction. Extremely important that we do this right from the beginning to create an environment where people feel that they can speak up.

0:21:48.2 Junior: Let's talk about a few of those worthiness tests, because there are many that we apply to people. And we're all guilty of this to some degree, we do it pretty often, but those worthiness tests could be based on social status, they could be based on economics, they could be based on politics, they could be based on ethnicity or religion, or gender or whatever other category you could come up with to describe humans.

0:22:17.7 Tim: That's right.

0:22:18.6 Junior: We use them all the time. And you can see today and throughout history, where those worthiness tests have been so pernicious. And there are no worthiness tests based on inclusion that aren't pernicious. And so I think that that's something that you can take to the bank, and one of the things that I love about this first piece is that the only test in worth is as it relates to inclusion, is are you human, are you presenting me with any harm? Even then, if you're presenting with harm, it doesn't mean that you're inherent worth is any different. And so that's this universal principle that does not change, it's unwavering, and that helps me especially to have this frame to go out into the world and interact.

0:23:07.0 Junior: Worth and worthiness, and I would encourage all of us to do that maybe today, tomorrow, is leave. When you go out the door, think about that throughout the day. Worth, worthiness as I'm interacting with other people, and I'm deciding to include them or not include them. How am I making that decision? It's probably based on a worthiness test, and you're probably thinking about some category that it may not be terribly explicit in your mind what you're doing. But think about it, try and unpack that and see what's governing whether or not you are including.

0:23:41.0 Tim: Junior, I would add to that. Well, thank you for saying that. I think that we need to be aware. We need to keep that top of mind. If you think about it in the history of human society, we exclude, we discriminate, we hold bias based on what? Based on human characteristics, based on demographics and psycho-graphics and cultural attributes. Every single person is a bundle of demographics and psycho-graphics. Yours are different than mine. What we're saying is that it is illegitimate to bring that in to an evaluation of inclusion. So for example, if you just look through history, the top three worthiness tests that humans apply to each other to determine inclusion or exclusion, number one would be gender. So sexism is the number one test. Number two would be what? 

0:24:49.0 Tim: It would be based on ethnicity or race. Racism is the second greatest form of discrimination, and then third would be classism or socio-economic status. So gender is number one, ethnicity is number two, socio-economic status is number three. Why do we do this? These are all attempts at making a claim of superiority based on a junk theory of superiority. What we're saying is that none of that has any place in the organization, those are illegitimate attempts to claim superiority. That's what that is. And those worthiness tests are spurious, they're bankrupt, they are flawed. They're illegitimate. We should clear the decks and disavow ourselves of using any of those illegitimate worthiness tests to create inclusion in a social collective, wherever we may be.

0:25:54.6 Junior: Well, think about the instances where you've been on the receiving end of a worthiness test and you've been excluded because of it, you didn't meet the criteria of the person on the other side. That hurts.

0:26:07.5 Tim: Yeah.

0:26:09.7 Junior: And yet we do that. And so that's motivation to me to be extra cautious. Because I've been on the end of these, right? Where someone said, "No, you're not welcome here," because of whatever it might have been. And that's not fun. And so we need to be very conscious of that as leaders as we set the tone in our organizations. And as it relates to speaking up, here's a connection that's pretty interesting. Speaking up is really nothing less than an expression of your authentic self. If I am showing up as my authentic self, it almost goes without saying that I'm going to give my authentic perspective. I will tell you that I see things as I see them. And it's not going to be any different. I'm not filtering. I'm not modifying and I'm not editing my perspective based on what's going on. If I really do feel a sense of belonging that I'm accepted for being my authentic self, I'm willing to give unvarnished feedback. And so that's the connection to speaking up, is that if we apply worthiness tests as they relate to inclusion, people will not speak up.

0:27:23.3 Tim: That's exactly right, Junior.

0:27:24.9 Junior: So who has the first mover obligation here, Tim? 

0:27:29.8 Tim: Well, I think that's a question that we all need to ask, and I think, I hope the answer is obvious to everyone. The organization and the leader have the first mover obligation to do what? To prove to every member of that organization that their worth is a non-negotiable constant. They have that obligation, they are responsible for the cultural conditions on the team, they need to establish that. They have a first mover moral obligation to create that kind of environment, that you're worth as a human being it's the non-negotiable. It's a constant. So I think that that helps us. And then people feel that they can bring full candor, it's not expensive to be themselves and they can express themselves. They can be their authentic selves. Which is, as you said, the connection is very clear, you can't be your authentic self if you can't speak up. You see the connection? 

0:28:39.3 Junior: Yeah. No, makes a lot of sense. And I think the safest assumption here to who has the first mover obligation, just assume that it's you. Regardless of who you are and what you're doing and what your role is, just assume that it's you. Okay, so that's the first separation, worth from worthiness. The second separation is separate loyalty from agreement. This one caused a lot of reflection on my end, and I've been thinking about this one for the last several days, ever since I first saw a draft of the article. When loyalty becomes contingent on agreement, it produces manipulated conformity, which isn't loyalty at all. You say true loyalty, which refers to genuine concern for and dedication to the best interests of an institution and its people must not only allow but encourage independent thought. So this one, very fascinating to me. And you mentioned a piece in this section, Tim, about a CEO asking, "Are we aligned?" Have you ever had a CEO ask are we aligned? I know the answer.

0:29:51.1 Tim: Yes. Thank you. [laughter] Thank you for teeing that up Junior.

0:29:55.4 Junior: I've heard this too.

0:29:56.4 Tim: Yes, yeah. This is an assumptive close, right? By the CEO. And what does it really do? Are we all aligned? Hey, is everybody all aligned, right? I wanna see nodding heads, I wanna see nodding heads. As if that were a good thing. It's not a good thing, it acts as an intellectual and an emotional muzzle. It's an assumption close. That's not what we want. Because what that does is it reinforces the notion that agreement means loyalty, and loyalty means agreement. We've got to take those two things apart, they need to be divorced. Separate loyalty from agreement. Your loyalty is not contingent upon agreeing with me. We don't want that.

0:30:46.0 Tim: Can you see why and how this separation of loyalty from agreement is crucial to create a speak up culture? If people think that agreement, that we need to agree to be loyal and that loyalty requires that and that you require that, then we can't speak up. We're not going to want to speak up, because speaking up would simply be muscling through the fear and risking whatever the repercussions may be, the sting of social rejection. Maybe I lose opportunities for upward mobility, maybe it tarnishes my reputation. Maybe my job's on the line. People are not going to speak up if they think that loyalty demands agreement. Wow.

0:31:37.4 Junior: So loyalty and disagreement need to peacefully co-exist.

0:31:43.9 Tim: That's right.

0:31:44.0 Junior: So I mentioned, I've been thinking about this idea. Loyalty as a leader, if you ask the average leader, do you want the loyalty of your people? What would they say? They'd say absolutely, yes. But then if you ask them, "Well, what does loyalty mean to you?" I think that you would get varied answers. And you have to ask that question, and you have to ask yourself what does loyalty mean to you. And I've been asking myself this question, because people's loyalty could be placed in a whole bunch of different areas and we might still just call it loyalty. But is it loyalty to your ego as a leader? Is that what they're loyal to? Or is it loyalty to the best outcome for the team, given the situation? 

0:32:30.8 Junior: Those are very different things and could result in very different decision-making and very different behavior. What's interesting about the former though, loyalty to ego, is that that feels really good as a leader in the short term. When people just say, "Yeah, well, whatever you say, we're behind you. Let's go." And if you're pointed in the wrong direction and you're the single point of failure and people are blindly following and they're loyal to the ego, to your ego, 'cause they don't wanna make it mad, you put yourself in a very, very dangerous situation. And so loyalty and disagreement, how could those peacefully co-exist? Only if the loyalty is based on and aimed at the best outcome for the team, not the ego of the leader. So that's what was striking to me as I thought about this.

0:33:30.6 Tim: I love the way that you've explained that, Junior. That's really true. What is the object of the loyalty. That's ultimately where we need to go. And now, as listeners, you may be wondering. Hmm, I wonder if we have separated loyalty from agreement on my team? Well, how would you know? Just look around, what's happening? Do you see rigorous debate, do you see constructive dissent without fear of retaliation? If you see those conditions, if you see those signs then that would indicate that you're doing a pretty good job of separating loyalty from agreement. Well, you may not see that though. You may see fear induced intimidation. Do you see that? Do you see people feeling pressed and squeezed to be loyal? Well, that means you have not separated loyalty from agreement. So just watch the way people behave and interact and you'll get a read on the separation or the closeness of loyalty and agreement.

0:34:40.9 Junior: That's great. If you're getting a lot of yeses, I love the just yes, no ratio. If that's really, really high, chances are you've got some work to do. And we all do.

0:34:53.0 Tim: Yeah.

0:34:53.7 Junior: Here's the third separation, separate status from opinion. You mentioned smart people don't make a smart team unless they can harness their collective intelligence. Explain that for me.

0:35:05.5 Tim: Well, Junior think about simple arithmetic would suggest that if you put a bunch of geniuses together on a team, we have a team of 10 people, we're gonna put 10 geniuses on this team. Great things will happen, they will outperform every other team. They'll come up with amazing results. I wish that were true, but it's not. It is not a matter of simple arithmetic, we don't just stack IQ points upon IQ points to achieve these fantastic results. The team has to harness its collective intelligence, it becomes one great brain, it's all about the neuroplasticity of the team. The people working together, harnessing their collective intelligence. How do you do that? So you have to... A big part of it is this third separation, you have to separate status from opinion. In other words, we don't care where the opinions come from.

0:36:06.4 Tim: It's not about source, it's about substance. We don't care about your status and the connection between your status and the opinion that you hold. That's not what this is about. It's about discussing, debating, considering ideas on their merits. We can't do that unless we separate status from opinion. We're not going to give you extra credibility or over-way your opinion simply because you have higher status. But yet teams do this and organizations do this all the time. This is what we call authority bias. We over-value opinions from the top of the hierarchy and we undervalue opinions from the bottom of the hierarchy. Well, that just introduces more risk, more danger, more liability exposure to the team and to the organization, and a much greater possibility that you will make an error in judgement. You'll make poor decisions. You're not separating status from opinion.

0:37:19.0 Junior: The pressure to do that is ubiquitous though. And I think we need to acknowledge that there's always this pressure on the lower-status person to agree with the higher-status person and say yep, sounds good, that's great. And we've talked about this before but there's some baggage that comes with your positional power, and you need to work to neutralize that as a leader. And so it's a special responsibility that you might have to really ratchet down that power differential and get as close to equal as you possibly can, so that that pressure dissipates for that lower-status person to agree with you.

0:38:00.5 Junior: And so that's something that it's just a natural occurrence of hierarchy and something that then you need to actively work against. And so that's something that I think is worth calling out. It's not that you did anything wrong, such that the lower-status person wants to agree. It's just the nature of hierarchy. And so you can be as well-meaning as they come, but you still have this responsibility to neutralize just that reality of the hierarchy. And sometimes, well often, if not always that takes some deliberate effort. You have to be very aware of that.

0:38:30.6 Tim: And Junior, let's... We do need to acknowledge that in high power distance cultures, where the authority gradient is steep, that authority biases is strong. And what that means is that there's an acceptance for large differences in that authority. There's disparities and it translates into behavioral patterns where we create exaggerated deference to the chain of command. We're almost worshipful of those who are higher in the hierarchy. And this becomes very dangerous because of the translation into behavioral patterns, right? So it's fine to be respectful and it's fine to be accountable and to let the hierarchy work. We need that to happen. We need hierarchy. But when that translates into an obstacle in our ability to speak up, when it encumbers us, when it gets in the way then we have a problem. Because what happens? We've just cut off communication. We've just cut off feedback, we've broken the feedback loop.

0:39:50.4 Tim: And so now we are subjecting ourselves to higher risk. Now as you say Junior, there's always pressure on the lower-status person to agree with a higher-status person. That's very true, naturally. But there's a lot that we can do to neutralize that. If we make this third separation, if we separate status from opinion and as the leaders if you are constantly reinforcing this, I need your full candor, I'm inviting your feedback and then what do I do? I reward it. I consistently reward that vulnerable behavior. That's how you separate status from opinion, is that you reward opinion especially when it comes with lower status. If you have a lower-status person that's voicing a contrary point of view, what are you going to do? Reward that behavior. That's the way that you achieve the separation over time.

0:40:52.7 Junior: And there are a couple of things that we as teams need to figure out how to do, and they're to disagree and how to be disagreed with. So you need to learn how to do both of those things. And that's true at the level of the leader and it's true of the level of the rest of the team. Each of us needs to become good at those. And it's not that we just want disagreement for disagreement's sake, right? And the end of that is just agitation, is just annoying and it's a waste of time. You don't have to disagree with everything just because, but if the intent is well-meaning and the intent is innovation, we need to be able to see that, that needs to come through in the way that you're disagreeing. And then if you're on the receiving end of that feedback, especially as a leader, you need to have a lot of scale and a lot of emotional regulation, a lot of ego management going on, in order to take that disagreement, harness it, and then make use of it, and invite people to repeat that process. And so it's not an easy thing to do, but it's something that's necessary if we're going to have high-performing teams that are sustainable.

0:41:58.5 Tim: Junior, I would say that if you're a leader of leaders, right? Say you occupy a senior leadership, senior management role in the organization and you lead leaders, one of the most important things you can do is what you just said, to model that art of disagreement, to show your leaders how to disagree with poise, with composure, with grace, with humility. That's how they achieve that separation of opinion from status. So if you're a leader of leaders, please think about this and ask yourself how well are you doing this. How well are you modeling the art of disagreement and teaching that to the leaders that you lead? 

0:42:46.3 Junior: And I'll also say just as an aside, it's important that we choose wisely what we want to disagree with. And that agitation point is something that I've been thinking about a lot. You don't need to go to war over an Oxford comma, you don't need to die on the hill and just uproot the institution because of this Oxford comma that's hanging out, right? Pick your battles and there are things that are going to be very consequential and things that aren't. And so don't disagree just for the sake of disagreeing or for the sake of trying to be right. Pick those battles and then do it artfully. And that art of picking those battles and those discussions is a skill. It's a real skill.

0:43:28.7 Tim: Right.

0:43:29.9 Junior: Okay. So let's move on to the last separation which is to separate permission from adoption. This is also one of my favorites. So some people mistakenly believe that to be heard is to be heated. And in organizations of course this is not possible. We have a lot of people we have a lot of opinions and we have a lot of decisions to make, right? 

0:43:54.0 Tim: We do. We're constantly... Well, we can't say yes to everyone. We have to make trade-off decisions. We have to allocate scarce resources and we're doing that all the time. So hopefully everybody understands that. And that would seem very obvious. Yet in spite of that, sometimes Junior, there's an assumption or an expectation that if I give an opinion or I make a suggestion about a course of action or something that I think we should do that there's an expectation that you need to do that. You need to adopt that, right? 

0:44:34.0 Junior: Yeah.

0:44:34.1 Tim: That happens.

0:44:35.4 Junior: That happens a lot.

0:44:35.9 Tim: So we've gotta disabuse people of this.

0:44:39.2 Junior: Well, and we need to set expectations upfront and I'm always a huge fan of laying out the decision criteria and the decision model at the very beginning. Say hey, this is a consultative decision upfront. I want your opinion but just understand that I'm gonna make the decision after we do that consultation. And so that helps people understand upfront, okay, this is how it's gonna work and I'm gonna be asked for my opinion and we're gonna have some debate and then a decision's going to be made and I'm not gonna have final say over that decision. Other times, hey, we really do need to achieve consensus on this decision for whatever reason. Okay, great. We go in with a different set of expectations or hey, you have the decision, right? You are gonna be able to make the decision, team member, after we have some deliberation.

0:45:33.3 Junior: And so doing that and setting appropriate expectations upfront is really helpful. And then you make the point in the absence of adoption, emphasize recognition. I really like this point. If you have the proverbial suggestion box and people throw things in it and then never hear about it again, that is very detrimental to the team. And so, okay, you're not gonna adopt every suggestion. Of course, you're not. People know that. But emphasize the recognition of the contribution, of the feedback and let people know what happened to the suggestion, "Hey, I saw that email. I appreciate that suggestion last week. It doesn't fit in with the current objectives for the next two weeks but it's something that we're gonna revisit in September." Awesome. Right? Or maybe it is at that end.

0:46:23.8 Tim: Junior, you do that. If you say what you just said then you're giving the person some evidence of the organization's receptivity. Because everybody's always asking the question, well, if I give feedback does anyone care? Is anyone listening? Does it matter? There's got to be some evidence of receptivity. And even if we don't adopt.

0:46:46.5 Junior: Yeah. Well, speaking of evidence of receptivity here's something for you to all try. The next time you're in a meeting. It could be a one-on-one it could be a big group discussion and someone makes a suggestion, write it down please, write it down. Because if someone, let's say that they speak for 20 seconds and they're making a suggestion and then you just nod and you say, "That's really nice." And then you move on to the next item of business. Okay, that's just dismissal, right? And I understand that we have decisions to make, we have things to do and time is of the essence. All it takes, just jot it down, they can see visually, okay, they heard what I said, they wrote it down and then you can follow up on that later. It doesn't have to take a really long time and who knows maybe you have an incredible memory and that's gonna stick in your brain. It doesn't matter. You're trying to show the other person, hey, I validate what you're saying and I'm taking a quick note. That's all.

0:47:45.7 Tim: I love that.

0:47:46.1 Junior: So, just a quick suggestion that I've seen work well. I don't do it well all the time but it's something that I've seen people respond really well to.

0:47:52.5 Tim: No, I love that Junior. It's a nonverbal acknowledgment. And if you see someone's writing it down, you appreciate that. That's an expression of respect and acknowledgment. I love that.

0:48:05.1 Junior: Okay. So those are the four separations. We've covered a lot of really interesting points today and I have really enjoyed the conversation. So here to summarize, one of the primary responsibilities of a leader is to perform a reality testing. You talk about this at the very end, the viability of an organization depends on its capacity to interpret and respond to reality. But no leader can do that alone. When people speak up, they circulate local knowledge, they expand the universe of useful ideas and they prevent collective tunnel vision. And not infrequently, those minority views turn into novel solutions. When people speak up and voice their views and concerns when they challenge the status quo, two things happen. They find greater purpose and professional life on the personal level and then they contribute greater value to the organization. So it's institutionally valuable. So Tim, maybe walk us through those four separations again.

0:49:07.8 Tim: Sure. Number one, separate worth from worthiness. Remember remember the distinction. Number two, separate loyalty from agreement. Number three, separate status from opinion. And then finally number four, separate permission from adoption.

0:49:29.0 Junior: These seem very straightforward. They're going to require a lot of...

0:49:33.0 Tim: They're not that easy.

0:49:34.4 Junior: A lot of energy. And they're difficult. Again, as we say often, it's the quest of a professional lifetime to be able to do this well but it is worthwhile. And each of us has probably been in organizations or teams that do one or several or all of these things well, and we've probably also been in situations where all four are done poorly. And you can tell the difference. Where do you wanna be? Where do you feel like you wanna contribute and where do you feel like you're going to grow? So keep that in mind as you go throughout your week, this week. Tim, any final thoughts today? 

0:50:11.9 Tim: Well, just going back to the research that you cited at the very beginning, Junior. If you want to have a speak up culture please understand what you're asking the members of that organization to do. You're asking them to engage in the six most vulnerable behaviors. If you really want them to do that, then please invest in creating the conditions and the culture where they feel comfortable, not only comfortable but anxious and confident that they can speak up. And that goes back to your role as cultural architect.

0:50:48.4 Junior: Fantastic. Tim, thanks for your time today. I very much appreciated the conversation. And to everyone listening thank you for your time and attention. We appreciate your listenership. We're very grateful for all of the work that you do in the world. We know that you are all over the place. I love to look at our downloads map and see just how many countries are on there and understand that you're out there doing good work in the world. We at LeaderFactor are here to support you. If you liked today's episode please leave us a like, a review and share it with someone you think might find it valuable. Take care of everyone. We will see you next week. Bye-bye.


0:51:31.4 Producer: Hey, culture by Design listeners this is the end of today's episode. You can find all the important links from today's episode at And if you've found today's episode helpful and useful in any way, please share it with a friend and leave a review. If you'd like to learn more about LeaderFactor and what we do then please visit us at Lastly, if you'd like to give any feedback to the Culture by Design podcast or even request a topic from Tim and Junior, then reach out to us at or find and tag us on LinkedIn. Thanks again for listening and making culture something you do by design, not by default.


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Episode Transcript

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