Recently, in our compliance world, we’ve seen a much greater discussion on whistleblowing, but also on how to encourage a “speak up” culture. And when I think about speaking up, I’m not only considering speaking up about the risks we might witness or observe, but also about ourselves

In fact, I think that quite often the hardest people to speak up about are ourselves, especially where we might harbor rationalizations, assumptions, or other internalized debates around pressure and what management really wants and expects.

Accordingly, I was fascinated when a professor who was speaking at a Transparency International event in the Netherlands I attended recommended “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth” by Amy C. Edmondson. Edmondson’s proposition is quite simple, addressing how psychological safety empowers an environment in which employees are “communicating and collaborating with people across boundaries of all kinds.” In such surroundings, people are not hindered by “interpersonal fear” but are willing to put aside such personal reservations in exchange for candor so that “team and organizational performance can be maximized in a knowledge intensive world!”

As Edmondson shares, the upside is significant when employees are “confident that they can speak up and won’t be humiliated, ignored or blamed.” In such settings, mistakes are surfaced, not buried, cross-functional collaboration is enabled, and creativity with “potentially game changing ideas for innovation” is unleashed. If you think we’ve already reached a “speak-up” nirvana, statistics indicate otherwise. Edmondson calls attention to a Gallup poll in which only 3 in 10 employees feel that their opinions matter at work, which does not lend itself to a workplace where personnel “contribute ideas, share information, and report mistakes.” So, if Edmondson wants to bring us to a place where “innovation, growth, and performance take hold” in her “Fearless Organization,” where do we start and how do we get there?

According to Edmondson, the first step is to make sure employees are not holding “interpersonal risk” above more collaborative values. No one wants to look stupid, incompetent, or weak in the workplace, and when that’s the prevailing fear, employees will avoid speaking up just to avoid those risks and emotions. In such situations, leaders need to surface and acknowledge how culture and fear exist, and to help their teams move past fear-based silence by facilitating “open and authentic communication that shines the light on problems, mistakes, and opportunities for improvement.”

It goes back to my own experience that a difficult discussion, even an awkward one, means everyone is leaning in as a team, regardless of role and responsibility, to share the common goal of getting better comfort that what everyone wants to happen on the front lines of operations is actually happening. I think that business and compliance leaders who embrace the complexity of ethical decision making on the front lines, and who demonstrate vulnerability, humanity, and humility in their messaging—such as “we want to hear about the risks that you face, so we can support you and unpack them as a team”—go a long way to get their teams to speak up about challenges before they are in the middle of them. And as Edmondson shares, pay close attention to make certain that the voice of leadership doesn’t get frozen in the middle of your organization, as “psychological safety is very much shaped by local leaders.” Those are the organizations where the language of certainty gets replaced with the language of candor from the C-Suite all the way to the front lines.

Edmondson shares that the “more we talk to each other, the more comfortable we become in doing so,” and hence, the time to build these relationships, and an environment of safety, is when a crisis is not at hand, so when a difficult moment inevitably arises, people will already feel safe and comfortable in talking to their peers, as those bonds were built on a solid and safe foundation.

In Edmondson’s analysis, when interpersonal fear governs communication, we lock out employee growth, innovation, and process improvement. This isn’t just about “speaking up,” it’s more about unleashing the true potential of your teams and constantly challenging organizational design and process improvements. That’s taking ethics and compliance well beyond policies, rules, and procedures. I can recall a number of scenarios and situations in my defense career where instead of sharing my assumptions, rationalizations, and yes, fear, about my own future, I embraced Edmondson’s logic that “safe was better than sorry.” And that’s not an excuse, but it goes back to employees who often feel that their values get challenged in meeting their commercial objectives, and who might try to untangle the tensions between the pressure to succeed and the pressure to comply on their own, when a world of alternatives awaits them in a fearless organization.

Edmondson is absolutely correct when she states “silence is instinctive and safe; if offers self-protection benefits, and these are both immediate and certain,” whereas sharing the risks and challenges we face and observe can be both scary and abstract. So as compliance and business leaders, we need to use our voices to demonstrate that a learning environment, where questions, ethical gaps, and challenges are not only welcomed, but embraced, in order to mitigate the default of silence. As I often advise leaders, great messaging is when “good news can wait, but challenges and obstacles need to be shared with the same fidelity.” And you don’t need to bring in a consultant to help you with that: it’s just recognizing the power of our words, and that ambiguity and silence is the enemy of ethics and integrity.

We should also remind our teams about the hazards of shortcuts, often taken where employees don’t feel safe calling attention to a process issue and instead devise their own workaround. The problem with those workarounds is that they work, at least for the individual, but in getting their job done through circumvention, “new, subtle problems” are created for others and more importantly, “process improvement” gets stifled or quashed, along with the opportunity to improve the enterprise and practices to everyone’s benefit. I have heard those shortcuts called “open secrets,” where many in the organization know they are occurring, yet no one talks about it. Every organization has open secrets, and are you promoting a culture of “silence isn’t golden” but speaking up about issues, as if you were the only one who knows about them (avoiding the bystander effect), is embraced?

Edmondson shares that the “more we talk to each other, the more comfortable we become in doing so,” and hence, the time to build these relationships, and an environment of safety, is when a crisis is not at hand, so when a difficult moment inevitably arises, people will already feel safe and comfortable in talking to their peers, as those bonds were built on a solid and safe foundation.

While I hope I’ve inspired you to read Edmondson’s book, allow me to leave you with a few parting thoughts where Edmondson states how “many organizational leaders genuinely believe that ‘no news’ means that things are going well.” And that’s a fair point. Compliance and business leaders have enough challenges other than to start turning over successful “stones” and to see what might lie underneath. When I was in the defense field, I was increasing sales in the headwinds of market decline for a few years. I wasn’t sharing with anyone how I was achieving that success, and no one was calling me to ask. Edmondson calls that “dangerous silence” and ignore that dynamic at your own peril. We have seen corporate scandals at Wells Fargo and the VW Group, among others, where everything appeared to be going great, until the tide washed out. As Edmondson summarizes, “a culture of silence is a dangerous culture.”

While I have probably framed more challenges than solutions, Edmondson takes us through her toolbox, from “inviting participation,” to “responding productively,” all leading us to a place of “how to make it safe to fail.” I hope that by reading this work, which is now a foundational part of my compliance library, that you can be better attuned to hearing the silence before it’s deafening.