Why It’s So Hard to Speak Up Against a Toxic Culture

May 21, 2018 Francesca Gino

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Alexander Crispin/Getty Images

Frustrated by the behavior of some men in their workplace, a group of women working at Nike anonymously surveyed other women colleagues a few months ago about their perceptions of sexual harassment and gender discrimination at the company. The results painted a clear picture of a workplace where women often felt marginalized, disrespected, and discriminated against. The survey reached the hands of the company’s CEO. What followed, as covered in the media, has been a serious wave of changes: Top executives at the firm resigned or are on their way out, and bias training and other remedies are being introduced.

The gesture by the Nike workers may seem dramatic, but it was the result of women being ignored by HR as they voiced their concerns. Their experience is not unique. Those working in HR departments have the responsibility to assure that people are treated fairly at work. But they may not give an employee’s complaint the attention it deserves when it is targeted to powerful executives, as a way to protect both the executives and also the company from negative media attention or even from a lawsuit. But as research tells us, an unfortunate consequence of not taking action is that more harassment is likely to take place later on as the perpetrators know they can get away with their behavior.

Stories like this one about Nike’s toxic workplace culture remind us that speaking up about injustice and being heard in an organization can create positive change. Research helps us understand why it is that people speak up in some situations and not in others.

One reason people don’t speak up is the significant risk of doing so. Challenging the status quo threatens people’s status and relationships with supervisors and coworkers, research shows. Speaking up can also result in negative performance evaluation, undesirable job assignments, or even termination. Most people are aware of these potential costs; as a result, most stay quiet about bias, injustice, and mistreatment.

Then there is the bystander effect: When a person is in trouble, others who are present often fail to intervene, whether because they assume other people will or because they think it’s not their place to act. The more costly intervening would be, the less likely we are to do so.

In one study, participants were either alone or with a passive bystander. They witnessed an incident in which a man sexually harassed a woman (in reality, both the man and the woman were actors). To vary how costly intervening was, the experimenters varied the perpetrator’s physical stature. In the low-cost condition, the perpetrator was a small man with a slight build. In the high-cost condition, the perpetrator was tall and looked fierce. When intervening would be less costly, 50% of participants helped when no other bystander was present, whereas only 5.9% of participants helped when there was another bystander. But when the cost was high, fewer participants stepped in, whether or not another bystander was present.

When we do speak up when others are being treated unfairly or hurt, we not only demonstrate courage, we also influence others to follow suit. Bravery — whether we’re calling out harassment, unfair processes, gender or racial bias, or discrimination — can motivate observers to overcome their fear of repercussions. And the motivation is particularly strong when the observers are people who were themselves victims.

Think of what has happened with the #MeToo Twitter hashtag. At first, the tweets encouraging women to write “me too” if they’d been sexually harassed or assaulted came mostly from women in Hollywood, such as actress Alyssa Milano. Soon women in the media joined in, then in the art world, in comedy, in politics — in all walks of life. Then, thousands of women did so; at its peak, the hashtag was used half a million times in tweets in a single day. When a few women had the courage to speak up, many others were no longer afraid.

We’re especially likely to follow others’ actions when there is ambiguity about the appropriate way to behave. Other people’s behavior can clarify the social norms of a given situation, which can lead us to act in a similar way. For instance, one study found that hotel guests who learned that most other guests had reused their towels were 26% more likely to do so than guests who were only exposed to a general message about the value of protecting the environment. When guests were told that guests who had stayed in the same room as them had reused their towels, they were 33% more likely to do so as compared to guests who learned the reuse percentage for the hotel in general.

We follow suit when people help others or behave generously towards them, especially when we feel similar or close to the people engaging in these behaviors, Adam Galinsky of Columbia University and I found in our research. Clearly, being a victim of discrimination or sexual harassment can bond people to other victims of the same behavior. These experiences can inspire acts of courage and altruism.

My research also points to another source of the type of courage and confidence needed to speak up in organizations: authenticity. In a series of unpublished studies, my colleagues and I found that when we encouraged people to be authentic (for instance by having them think and write about a recent situation when they were able to be who they are at work), they were more likely than those in a control condition to speak up.

In one study, for instance, we first triggered authenticity in some participants and not others. Then, all participants engaged in a simulation. Everyone played the role of a team “vice president” who observed his or her “CEO” unfairly pay a team “employee.” In the simulation, they could communicate with their CEO and, if they desired, speak up on behalf of the employee. Participants in the authenticity condition were more likely to voice their concerns about unfair procedures that imposed costs on others. In fact, 29% of them spoke up, while only 19% did in the control condition.

What are the lessons of all this research? That silence is pervasive in organizations due to the widely shared belief that speaking up about sensitive issues is futile or even dangerous. Consequently, organizations need to convey to employees that they will be protected and valued if they share suggestions, opinions, and concerns — and that those who harmed them will face serious consequences. By doing so, leaders can encourage those who are being mistreated to find their voice.

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