Freedom of Speech in the Workplace: A Leader’s Approach

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 18th August 2017

One of the basic tenets of freedom and a fundamental building block of democracy is that of ‘free speech’. According to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, it is a basic right of a free society. It is enshrined in the constitution of many countries, and usually includes the notion of a free press.

Definitions vary, but they typically include statements protecting the right of the individual to express ideas freely in speech and writing, as long as it doesn’t set out to cause harm to others’ characters by making false or misleading statements.

Leadership and freedom of speech in the workplace

Freedom of speech in the workplace

As a leader, then, do you encourage such freedom of expression? Do your colleagues do so too? Is your organisation the sort where people are encouraged to say what they think openly and without fear of negative consequences?

In my experience, such freedoms are often constrained. I work with many leaders who feel that they cannot, dare not, openly criticise their organisation or senior colleagues. I am often questioned by leaders undertaking professional qualifications who need to reassure themselves that the things they say will not be disclosed or visible to their colleagues.

I suggest that political sensitivity, local or sector ‘morality’, and the general tendency to sanitise language in the workplace all serve to suppress real freedom of expression. At a time when the Church of England is exhorting Government to strengthen its position and renounce secularism, proposing that their doctrine be recognised as the truth by society (in this case, a society where more than 65% of members identify themselves as not being ‘religious’), and when the Irish police have considered bringing charges against Stephen Fry for alleged ‘blasphemy’, this is an extremely important issue.

Whether you agree with the views of another or not, a sophisticated and enlightened society permits, even encourages, dissension from accepted wisdom. Any suppression of speech in the UK, of course, pales into insignificance compared to some societies where individuals are persecuted, imprisoned or even killed because of their views, when they different from the views of those who hold power.

Creating freedom of speech in your organisation

So, bringing it back to the specifics of your own leadership context… where do you stand on encouraging your colleagues to be ‘open’ in expressing their views, even if they differ significantly from prevailing wisdom or your own position?

A mature and sophisticated community requires the freedom to be open and honest. Innovation absolutely requires it like a fish needs water. Without it, it will die.

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So what do you do to encourage and enable people to have open and honest dialogue with each other, their leaders, and their organisation?

Are you or your culture deliberately or unintentionally suppressing free speech?

If so, what will you do about it?

Tactics for introducing freedom of speech

Here are five things you can do straight away:

1. Be open to new ideas: when you’re generating ideas, thoughts or options, accept all suggestions and consider them all. Don’t, as many do, immediately shortlist to a few and just discuss those. When you do that, it’s almost inevitable that the unusual, interesting and innovative ideas will be dismissed.

2. Don’t stifle innovation: Ensure that any opportunity to generate new thinking – maybe at the start of a project, when trying to solve a problem or planning almost anything – has clear ‘rules of engagement’ that allow and encourage all forms of contribution and don’t impose protocols about ‘being nice’ or ‘politeness’.

3. Embrace debate: Never view conflict as something to be avoided or suppressed. Arguments, disagreements and passionate debate are all absolute hotbeds of new thinking or ideas. Look at your policies, procedures, activities and habits to see whether opportunities to disagree are encouraged and supported. Observe the behaviour of key people when any disagreement appears to be on the cards. If they sidestep it or suppress it, ask them why. Passion and argument are a good thing and essential to making progress.

4. Make openness the norm: Establish some ‘house rules’ in your own team that encourage the sharing of open, honest views and discourage the enforcement of one particular set of views at the expense of other options, at least without debate. Most people are conditioned to behave in particular ways (don’t swear in front of a lady, don’t get angry, don’t raise your voice, don’t disagree with the boss) and will find such ‘freedom’ challenging and uncomfortable. Like most behaviours, it’s largely the result of habit and culture. Learn new habits.

5. Assess your current culture: Think about the ‘unspoken protocols’ in your organisation and especially your team. How much ‘openness and honesty’ is there now? Why is it like this, and can you change it?

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