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Speak-Up Culture: When Leaders Truly Listen, People Step Up

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Speak-Up Culture - Stephen Shedletzky on Leadership
Speak-Up Culture - Stephen Shedletzky on Leadership
“Creating a sense of safety is such a fundamental human need, and it's a key factor in enabling people to thrive. When people feel safe, they're more likely to flourish. In situations where safety is lacking, we end up expending energy protecting ourselves from one another, which is a massive waste. It squanders productivity, drains our energy, stifles creativity, and inhibits innovation.” Stephen (Shed) Shedletzky

Stephen (Shed) Shedletzky is a Speaker, Leadership Coach, and advisor. In his book “Speak-Up Culture: When Leaders Truly Listen, People Step Up,” Shed explores psychological safety, employee voice, and the benefits of fostering a culture where everyone feels safe contributing. In this conversation, we will discuss the importance of creating a safe and inclusive environment where individuals feel comfortable speaking up, sharing their thoughts, and being vulnerable.

Stephen Matini: When did you realize that what you're doing now is what you wanted to pursue?

Stephen (Shed) Shedletzky: It all began for me during my time at university. I enrolled in several courses taught by a professor I greatly admired. His name is Denis Shackel, a Kiwi from New Zealand, and he specialized in leadership, organizational behavior, and public speaking.

There was one particular class he taught called "Advanced Presentation Skills." At the end of the first class, he played a clip of Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. He challenged the class, saying, "Your assignment for the next class is to prepare a five-minute talk and try to match Dr. King's passion." It was no small task.

For me, I realized that if I wanted to speak with genuine passion, there were only a few topics I could speak about, and one of them was overcoming my fear of public speaking.

I had grown up with a stutter, and I still had a speech impediment. I later married a speech pathologist, which turned out to be a wise choice, particularly for our children, nieces and nephews. I decided to give a five-minute talk on the universal fear of public speaking, a topic famously joked about by Jerry Seinfeld: "The number one fear in North America is public speaking, and number two is death. That means that at a funeral, most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy. It makes no sense whatsoever.”

During my talk, I shared my experiences of struggling as a public speaker, including a low point in grade two when I couldn't even say the word "très," which is one of the first words you learn in French. From there, I sought the help I needed to gain confidence in speaking publicly, whether it was one-on-one, in small groups, or in front of larger audiences.

That talk marked a turning point for me because, for the first time in my life, I felt that my words had a positive impact on others. It wasn't about promoting anything or showcasing myself; it was about serving others.

From that moment, I became hooked on speaking. I later ventured into coaching and organizational behavior by connecting with individuals who shared similar values and beliefs. I essentially crafted my career path by looking up to and wanting to emulate people I admired. One of those individuals is Liane Davey.

SM: When you gave your speech, was there a moment when something clicked in your mind?

Shed: During that speech, I had an almost out-of-body experience. I was performing, but at the same time, I was thinking, "This is enjoyable, and I might actually be effective at this." I tried to quiet that thought because it was distracting me from focusing on the task at hand—delivering and serving.

Often, we are so preoccupied with what others think of us that we forget everyone else is equally concerned about what others think of them. So, whether you're giving a talk, working, or honing your craft, it's essential to concentrate on providing value and serving rather than worrying about how others perceive you. People are primarily occupied with their own thoughts and concerns. The key is to focus on giving, serving, and being effective for both yourself and others.

SM: Do you still feel nervous when you have to give a speech, or has that changed over time?

Shed: Well, for me, feeling nervous is actually a good thing. If I don't feel nervous, it might indicate that I'm not putting in the effort or that I don't genuinely care about what I'm about to say. So, for me, nervousness, anxiety, or even excitement are all data points that show me this matters.

When I give a talk, I follow a rule I learned from my mentor, Simon Sinek: only speak about things you care about and know. Care is even more important than knowledge.

I want to be able to say, "I care about this. I may not know everything, but I want to give it a try, and I hope you'll join me in the journey." So, I only speak about topics I genuinely care about and have some knowledge of.

The nervousness comes from my desire to be as effective as possible and to share something I've experienced or know so that others can have a similar experience or understanding. It's all about making a meaningful connection.

SM: One thing that struck me is your mission to help people feel safe. Tell me more about that.

Shed: Thank you for noticing. Creating a sense of safety is such a fundamental human need, and it's a key factor in enabling people to thrive. I've reflected on various experiences in my life, whether it's in rooms, environments, relationships, companies, cultures, congregations, or communities. When people feel safe, they're more likely to flourish.

Conversely, in situations where safety is lacking, we end up expending energy protecting ourselves from one another, which is a massive waste. It squanders productivity, drains our energy, stifles creativity, and inhibits innovation.

I've also observed moments in relationships, whether one-on-one or within groups and communities, where I did feel safe. In those situations, I've had the freedom to voice unpopular, difficult, or vulnerable thoughts, and they were met with curiosity, openness, and a desire to learn and grow. It just feels healthier and more enriching.

It's essential to clarify that I'm not referring to homogeneous communities but diverse ones where people from various backgrounds are valued and their voices are respected because they do matter. I prefer such environments not only for the benefits they bring to our mental and physical well-being but also from a business perspective. They tend to yield better results overall.

SM: You mentioned your speech impediment. Were there any other events or people that significantly influenced the way you think today?

Shed: There's one person, whom I discuss in my upcoming book “Speak-Up Culture," who had a profound impact on me. His name was Dr. Robert Kroll, and he unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago.

During grade six, at the age of 13, I attended a two or three-week intensive stuttering camp organized by the Speech and Stuttering Institute, which is still active today. I was the youngest participant there, with only one other 14-year-old from Ottawa. The rest of the group consisted of older individuals, including a man in his mid-twenties who struggled to secure employment due to his inability to speak effectively in job interviews. Another participant was named George, and his complex Sri Lankan last name presented a significant challenge.

In one of the sessions, Dr. Kroll patiently worked with George, syllable by syllable, helping him pronounce his own last name. It took about 15 minutes, but the pride and relief George felt were palpable. It was an incredible moment.

Several significant things occurred during that stuttering program. First, I experienced relief and a sense of survivorship guilt as I realized that my stutter wasn't as severe as some others. I felt grateful for early intervention. Additionally, I observed how Dr. Kroll created a safe environment for experimentation, failure, and innovation—a space where people could learn and grow.

Lastly, a year later, I returned to my regular activities, no longer attending the stuttering camp. While I hadn't completely overcome my stutter, I had developed some strategies and gained confidence. That summer, I participated in a summer camp's theatrical production, reminiscent of "Saturday Night Live" with skits and improv.

I had a significant role in the production, leading the staff to select me and a few other campers to promote the mandatory evening program to the entire camp of around 450 people. We created a skit and commercial on the lawn outside the dining hall, but during the skit, I couldn't pronounce my character's complicated last name. The other campers and staff, who used to call me "Shed," were surprised by my nervousness and stuttering.

My worst nightmare unfolded as I stuttered in front of 450 people, but something incredible happened: it didn't seem to matter. Either nobody noticed or nobody cared. This experience taught me a valuable lesson—the harder you try to force a word out when you stutter, the more difficult it becomes. Despite my initial failure, I felt immense relief after that skit. Later that night, I performed flawlessly and enjoyed every moment of it.

This episode marked a turning point for me. I acknowledged that I still stutter and stumble over words at times, but I embraced it and moved forward.

SM: Have all these experiences found their way into your book?

Shed: The book explores the dynamics of being in environments, whether at work or outside of it, where there's a culture that encourages people to speak up. Such a culture has a profoundly positive impact on relationships and outcomes. Conversely, it delves into the stifling effect of cultures that don't promote speaking up, negatively affecting both well-being and results.

Moreover, I must express my aversion to the term "fearless leader." It's a term I don't endorse because the reality is that fear is inherent in all of us. Fear is a natural, biological response that serves to keep us safe and assess risks. When we experience fear, our body is essentially saying, "Be alert, something is happening, whether real or perceived.”

A valuable insight I gained from Rich Diviney, a retired US Navy SEAL who authored "The Attributes," is that if you encounter a leader who claims to be fearless, they might actually be putting you in danger. So, I advocate against the idea of a fearless leader.

Instead, I emphasize the importance of acknowledging fear, using it as valuable data, and then making a conscious choice on how to proceed. This choice could involve leaning into the fear and persevering, or it might mean extracting oneself from the situation, as our instincts for fight, flight, or freeze kick in. We all find something, either within ourselves or externally, that makes the risk of fear and vulnerability worthwhile.

SM: In your book, why did you focus on the importance of vulnerability?

Shed: I've been on the speaking circuit for many years, collaborating with Simon Sinek and sharing his work, such as "Start with Why," "The Infinite Game," and "Leaders Eat Last." Over the past 15 years or so, I've often been asked when I would write a book, as it seems like a common path for keynote speakers. My response was always that I'd write one if and when I came across a meaningful message.

At the beginning of 2021, I made a decision to say "yes" to more opportunities that came my way. It was based on some developments in my career and personal life, and I wanted to see where it would lead.

One such opportunity arose when Barry Engelhardt, who I've since become friends with, and who is based in St. Louis and involved with the local chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), reached out to me in the spring of 2021. He asked if I'd be interested in speaking at a virtual conference in the fall.

I agreed, even though I didn't yet have a specific topic in mind. Several months later, I received an email from the organizing committee asking for my talk title and description. That's when I realized I needed to figure out what I could talk about.

I had been increasingly intrigued by the concept of psychological safety in the preceding years. I had listened to one of Adam Grant's podcasts on the topic of a "Speak-Up Culture,” and it had resonated with me. My entry point into the subject was through the lens of incidents like the Boeing 737 MAX tragedy, which was one among many cases where disasters or tragedies might have been averted with healthier internal cultures.

As I delved deeper into the topic and developed my own perspective, I initially thought I was rebranding psychological safety. While I greatly admire the work of Amy C. Edmondson and the concept of employee voice and psychological safety, I found that some of the terminology felt overly academic and detached from the human experience and emotions involved.

As I continued my research and collaborated with an exceptional team, I discovered that psychological safety is just one component of a speak-up culture. It's not only about creating an environment of safety but also about fostering a perception of impact. Before individuals speak up, they consciously or subconsciously ask two questions: "Is it safe to speak up?" and "Is it worth it?”

Interestingly, having psychological safety alone may not be enough. If it's safe to speak up but doesn't seem worth it, it may not lead to meaningful change. It's akin to advising a friend with an alcohol problem to stop drinking—it might be safe to say, but will it lead to any real change? So, the ideal scenario is a combination of both a perception of safety and a perception of impact.

I've learned that creating a speak-up culture isn't solely about psychological safety; it's also about nurturing a perception of impact. Sometimes, if people perceive that speaking up is worth it and could lead to positive change, they're willing to take the risk, even if it's not entirely safe to do so. This dynamic is truly fascinating and has led me to highlight the stories of individuals like Ed Pierson and Kimberly Young-McLear, both of whom spoke up as courageous leaders despite personal risks.

SM: How do you balance assertiveness and vulnerability in communication, especially when saying “no"?

Shed: It involves both a willingness to acknowledge your self-worth and recognize the importance of the matter at hand. It's also about understanding that speaking up can lead to greater fulfillment and healthier relationships.

Let me illustrate this with an example I discuss in the book. We have a unique culture in our household. My wife and I are the partners, and our two children, aged seven and four, are the subordinates.

We hold three fundamental values that strengthen our relationship. We help people, always willing to assist others and connect with fellow helper people. Second, we treat everyone as the human beings they are, showing respect even when we don't particularly like someone. And third, we allow open discussions about our emotions, especially the difficult ones.

Now, let's say we invite a guest into our home, perhaps a prospective client. The outcome of this dinner could lead to a new contract and more opportunities. However, if this guest disrespects or mistreats my wife and children, I face a crucial decision. Do I intervene and address the behavior immediately, risking the potential client relationship, or do I let it slide and compromise our values and relationships for profit?

By choosing to speak up and enforce our values, I show my commitment to our cultural pillars, even when it may cost me financially. This demonstrates that our values are not just convenient or negotiable when they align with my interests; they are non-negotiable and vital.

The prospective client may either walk away, acknowledging their wrongdoing and displaying humility, or they might understand the importance of our values and be a suitable fit.

In essence, when we muster the courage to set boundaries, express what matters, and invest in relationships, we contribute to the health and growth of those relationships. In a toxic relationship, the more you invest, the worse it becomes, and you bear sole responsibility for the negativity. In a thriving relationship, both parties take responsibility for its well-being.

The more effort and transparency you put in, the more the relationship flourishes, which may lead to positive changes or decisions, like shifting or ending a relationship or making changes in a job. These outcomes can be healthy and progressive. So, it comes down to assessing whether it's worth it and whether you value yourself and the relationship enough to take the leap.

SM: Considering where you are now in your personal journey, what aspects of relationships still pose challenges for you?

Shed: Speaking up is a constant challenge. It's interesting because I originally dedicated the book to my wife, Julie, with the phrase "who makes it easy to speak up." However, I reconsidered and changed it to "who makes it safe and worth it to speak up." Speaking up is never a walk in the park.

To navigate this human experience while thinking you can avoid difficult or courageous conversations would be naive. Speaking up doesn't equate to being fearless; it's about reducing fear in our relationships. I'm far from perfect and have a gap between my words and actions.

Just yesterday, I let a partner down. I had committed to conducting research and preparing for an upcoming meeting, but I didn't follow through. When my partner asked about it, I had to admit that I hadn't done it. It was my responsibility, and I apologized sincerely. We tackled the task together during the call, and now I have a commitment to complete it for our next meeting, which I absolutely will.

If I had been self-righteous and refused to apologize, making it their problem, it would have strained our relationship. Instead, I apologized twice, once in the moment and again at the end of the call, taking full responsibility for my lapse and committing to improvement.

Being human isn't about perfection, which is an unattainable and dull ideal. Embracing our imperfections and continually striving to better ourselves is the essence of being human.

SM: What would you like for people to feel once they close your book Speak-Up Culture?

Stephen (Shed) Shedletzky: I wrote the book specifically for leaders, not necessarily by title, but by behavior. So the book is written for either a very senior leader who has the title and who has the authority, and quite frankly, the expectation to behave as leaders for leaders in the middle, and I often think we bash quote unquote managers, but managers are essential and we need them.

There's a lot of sort of conversation in the zeitgeist of like management bad, leadership good. And it's like, no, no, no, we need leaders to behave as leaders and we need managers to behave as leaders. And managers are essential. They're the only layer in an organization that has multi-directional influence. They can influence up to peer side to side and to subordinates down. And so it's also for managers who have either had great, or let's be honest, probably mostly awful experiences with leaders and who want to lead better.

And then it's also for people who may not have a role or title of leadership in the moment, they're committed to the practice of learning how to behave as a leader. And I want this book to help when people close the book, I also want them to know the truth and the fact that how they show up and how they behave has influence on others.

If others describe you as a great leader or a great listener or whatever it might be, it's because of how your behavior makes them feel. And so I want leaders by title and behavior that when they close the book at the end for them to realize, huh, how I show up, what I say, what I do really matters and I'm gonna work to be better. That's really it. And when you work to be better, the people around you are healthier and are more likely to thrive. And so are your results.

SM: Shed, thank you so much for joining me. I've learned a lot, and this has been the highlight of my Friday.

Shed: It's been my total pleasure, such a joy. I look forward to this episode being released and benefiting your audience.

🎧 Listen to the episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Podbean, or your favorite podcast platform.

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