Book review: ‘Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard’ by Megan Reitz and John Higgins

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‘Speak Up’, a ‘how-to guide to navigating the power and politics of conversations at work,’ as a cover blurb puts it, is a timely addition to the current debate on organisational trust, credibility and transparency. The book is authored by Megan Reitz, Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Ashridge, and John Higgins, Research Director at The Right Conversation, a consultancy that works with leaders and managers to improve conversations and build organisational cultures through open dialogue.

The central concept of the book, that emerged from wide-ranging and detailed research, is their ‘TRUTH’ framework: Trust, Risk, Understanding, Titles and ‘How-to’. As someone who has struggled myself, at times, to be heard and to navigate power and politics and work, I was keen to see what they had to say and to learn how I might handle politically fraught situations better. I found myself nodding in recognition at much that the book described, and many of the tips it offered (‘Plan what to say’, ‘Find an ally’, ‘Observe role models’, ‘Remove labels from decision-making’) are solid, sensible and useful. I also found myself, somehow, wanting more.

Where the book succeeds is in giving us insights into when, where and how to ‘speak up’ and make sure that our – and others’ – voices are heard more often in the workplace. Each of the five pillars of ‘TRUTH’ provides useful insights into what ‘speaking up’ could look like, and provides question to prompt the reader to inquire into their own habits, assumptions and conduct. It takes big concepts such as inclusion and unconscious bias and re-packages them in the chapter on ‘Titles’, which, while simplifying the topic, also makes this one aspect more concrete and specific. A matrix characterises four types of organisational cultures according to whether they exercise power ‘over or with’, and hold to a single or to multiple truths, which I felt was a fresh take and a useful tool for diagnosing our own environments.

It also has a useful chapter on speaking up in a future workplace dominated by data and technology, and maps out six thought-provoking scenarios of what power and dialogue might look like. For progressive organisations which are constantly looking ahead, there is a lot to consider here, and many potential minefields to anticipate.

Where I wanted more was on ‘why’ we should speak up – the value, to businesses and organisations, of colleagues speaking up, and the positive difference it can make, with evidence to support this. We know that whistleblowing is a vital act, where organisations are breaking the law or jeopardising the wellbeing of consumers, colleagues and citizens, but there are many other instances in which the concrete value of ‘saying what needs to be said’ could be explored. The authors provide many anecdotes throughout the book, but I felt that the meaning of these anecdotes could often be interpreted in different ways, and I was eager to see some more case studies where the ‘ROI’, for want of a better term, of speaking up was set out.

The book is careful to focus on ‘listening up’ alongside ‘speaking up’, which I was grateful for. But this was also, perhaps, its greatest weakness. We know that ‘speaking up’ without being heard is pointless and demoralising. While the book does provide questions which prompt the reader to inquire into their own listening habits, it does not, ironically, speak enough truth to power itself. Many organisations and leaders are still poor at listening, and power is still held and exercised in stiflingly traditional ways. Perhaps John Higgins’s next research project, on the influence of social activism on the organisational agenda, will address this.

Thecla Schreuders is a change-engager, sense-maker and trust-building storyteller.