My client had suspected that her immediate boss had been embezzling money for a few years before she spoke up. She first disclosed her suspicions to me, than added, "I think I said too much!"
When I asked why, she explained that she was not only afraid she would get fired from her job. She lived in fear of being deported because she was in the states on a work visa.
I was both grateful she was able to open up to me and appalled that she had carried this burden for so long out of fear of being villainized and harmed if she spoke up.
Sadly, this is a theme I've seen time and time again.
As humans, we are hardwired for connection and belonging because, like wolves, we are pact animals. We cannot survive on our own. The need for belonging is so great that people will stay silent when unethical or outright illegal activity is occurring.
At best, there's fear of being ostracized and excluded. Worse than that is the concern of retribution or actual harm.
In both instances, the apprehension to speak up comes from a desire to maintain one's sense of safety.
Without continuing to belong within the existing networks one has come to rely on there's concern they may no longer be able to maintain their status or wellbeing.
So it is common to stay silent. Above and beyond that, elaborate stories are woven rationalizing such inaction. Often seeded in fear and fertilized by dismissing, downplaying or minimizing the problem. It is possible for one to gaslight themselves, questioning the legitimacy of their concerns.
Doubt grows with questions like, "What if this is all a big misunderstanding?" Or, "What if I'm wrong?"
Wholehearted leaders are mindful of these complicated dynamics at play.
They go beyond parroting such phrases popularized after 9/11, "If you see something, say something."
Wholehearted leaders consciously create conditions where concerns can be raised without fear of no longer belonging. They do this by proactively engaging in efforts that promote Psychological Safety.
Amy Edmondson first coined the phrase Psychological Safety. In her book, The Fearless Organization, she says "when people have psychological safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. They are confident that they can speak up and won't be humiliated, ignored, or blamed."
The presence or absence of Psychological Safety is deeply intertwined with the organizational culture. Top down leadership models that are very authoritarian tend to externalize blame as a way of scapegoating responsibility.
Anytime there's an effort to find someone to take the fall for a mistake, Psychological Safety is undermined. In fact, there's such a strong undercurrent of fear present within our society that it's like the riptide in the ocean, sneakily pulling us further away from living our values. When used as a tactic, fear erodes Psychological Safety.
Wholehearted leaders are familiar with the ways fear impedes brain function and performance. They see how fear has been normalized as a management tactic and are determined to shift the paradigm. Instead, they seek to create an environment driven by intrinsic motivation rather than the traditional carrot or stick model.
Relationship building to establish and further trust is routinely prioritized. Dissent is welcome with curiosity and openness. Mistakes are addressed with openness, candor and care. Conflict is handled directly and compassionately. And there's attunement to the unique needs and experiences of the individuals on the team.
What creates safety for one person, might feel triggering for another.
In other words, wholehearted leaders continually engage in navigating the messy parts inherent in human relationships. When others might cast judgment, shame, or ridicule, they lean in.
That's exactly what I did with my client. I calmly reassured her throughout our meeting.
First I reminded her that our conversations were confidential. My role is not to speak up for people, rather it is to support them in finding their voice and expressing themselves so their intentions match their impact.
Then, I honored the gravity of her fears. While I couldn't really imagine what she was going through as an immigrant, I explained why I thought she would not be deported for bringing her concerns forward.
Finally, I reassured her that her bosses boss would not only want to know this information. But he would handle it with the utmost discretion, care and concern for her wellbeing.
After all, it was the bosses boss that initially hired me. I had worked closely with him and knew he was a dedicated wholehearted leader. He brought me in to uncover the dysfunction present, and it went beyond either of us ever imagined.
In retrospect, it was no surprise that there was secrecy, defensiveness and finger pointing going on. Looking back, it makes complete sense that there were trust issues. His direct report was not only doing something unethical, it was downright illegal.
In the end, my client did the courageous thing. She brought her concerns forward. There was an investigation. Her boss was removed from his position.
Meanwhile, she remains gainfully employed to this day. And the overall health of the team has improved significantly.
Unfortunately, I have encountered this type of scenario more than once. Sometimes, the concerns aren't as egregious. Yet when there's no accountability for unethical behavior, dysfunction and toxicity fester.
While it's easy to get disappointed or annoyed when such concerns do not get voiced in a timely fashion. It is always best for wholehearted leaders to remain empathetic and curious.
Speaking up is not easy because most people have past experiences of being excluded or rejected as a result. Instead, many have been rewarded for appeasing others and staying silent rather than being the catalyst for healthy conflict. That is why giving voice to such concerns is such a courageous act.
Acts of courage aren't about doing the easy thing. They're a matter of doing the right thing in the midst of grave concern for severe and uncontrollable consequences. And for most people, speaking up in such instances is an act of courage.