The importance of building a speak up culture

Colin Ellis
4 min readApr 26


Leaders need to do more than simply telling people to ‘speak up’

The recent Baroness Casey Review into the toxic culture at the Metropolitan Police in the UK brought to light many horrific things that people hope to never witness in their working lives.

Bullying, harassment, misogyny and institutional racism were all cited in the 363-page review. I read many of these kinds of reports to better understand what is happening in different workplaces around the world, in order to better inform my work, yet I have never read anything as harrowing and upsetting as this.

Disappointingly, many of the findings are simply a repeat of previous reviews of the culture undertaken at various stages over the last 40 years. They were known problems that were avoidable. The fact that the issues still exist is a complete and utter failure of senior management and government officials over four decades.

It’s extremely difficult to distil the review down into key themes, yet one thing was evident throughout that I believe we can all learn from: the culture actively discouraged people from speaking up about what they’d seen or heard. This discouragement took many forms:

  • Cultural — ‘this is what we do and we don’t dob on our teammates’
  • Harassment — ‘if you say anything we’ll make life difficult for you’
  • Threats — ‘if others find out about this, you’ll need to watch your back’.

A dichotomy existed — managers encouraged people to speak up about the behaviour they’d witnessed, yet when they did it was often dismissed. As the report found:

‘There is a culture of not speaking out in the Met. Leaders merely exhorting people to ‘speak up’ will not change this culture while people’s experience of doing so remains so negative.’

It would be easy to think that this is specific just to the Met, however, this also happens in other workplaces around the world. So why is it important to build a ‘speak up’ culture?

Principally, when employees are able to share their ideas, concerns, and feedback openly, it can lead to a more positive and productive culture, which in turn not only enhances the employee experience, but also of the experience of stakeholders or customers working with them.

Here’s how building a ‘speak up’ culture affects day-to-day activity:

  • Immediate action: In situations where poor behaviour is observed, employees are more likely to escalate these to management who can take immediate action to address them and thus prevent the culture from becoming toxic
  • Engagement: When employees feel heard and valued, they are more engaged in their work and invested in the achievement of goals (personal and team)
  • Loyalty: Employees who feel they are listened to are more likely to stay with the organisation long-term
  • Belonging: When employees are able to talk freely and openly about behaviour and performance, it increases the bonds they feel towards those that they work with and the culture as a whole
  • Trust: If employees feel that they not only have permission to speak up, but also that something will be done with the feedback they provide, it will increase the trust between managers and employees
  • Innovation: Employees who are able to speak up are more likely to share new and innovative ideas, which can drive growth and progress within the company.
  • Problem-solving: When employees feel comfortable speaking up, they are more likely to raise issues or concerns before they become bigger problems. This can help the company to address issues more quickly and effectively.

But where to start?

To help employees feel more comfortable speaking up in the workplace, I recommend the following steps based on work I’ve done with organisations to create this kind of environment:

  1. Build a culture of open, two-way communication: Leaders should create a culture where open communication is encouraged and valued. This can be done through regular team meetings where feedback is on the agenda, one-on-one check-ins, or anonymous suggestion boxes
  2. Provide training: Many employees may not feel comfortable speaking up because they lack the communication skills or confidence to do so. Providing training on effective communication and active listening can help employees feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas
  3. Lead by example: Leaders should role model the behaviour they expect of their employees. This means actively listening to employee feedback, responding to concerns, and incorporating employee ideas into decision-making
  4. Act on what is shared: When employees show courage and speak up on issues of ethics or poor behaviour it is important that leaders take action on what’s been shared. This sends a message to employees that their contributions are valued and creates greater cultural investment across the organisation.

By taking these steps, organisations can create a culture where employees feel comfortable speaking up and thus feel able to contribute to its success.

Managers around the world should take heed of the Baroness Casey Review. It would be easy to dismiss the findings as being specific to the work that the Metropolitan Police do, yet without building a culture that values and welcomes employees that speak up, any organisation could find itself in a similar position. How do you encourage employees to speak up?



Colin Ellis

Best-selling Author of Culture Fix | Keynote Speaker | Facilitator | Devoted Dad | Evertonian | Whisky Lover | Likes to laugh, a lot