University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

How Speaking Up Can Be Your Business Superpower

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September 09, 2022  |  By Cindy Moehring

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Every organization on the planet shares an ethical superpower – the voices of its leaders, employees, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders. All too often, however, no one in the organization knows this superpower exists. And if they’ve discovered that it’s within them, they aren’t always sure how to tap into it and use it. 

The “speaking up” superpower is rare in that it grows stronger as more organizations discover that they have this superpower and then put it to use. If everyone could leap tall buildings, spin spider webs, or swim underwater like a fish, those powers no longer would be super. Not so with speaking up. And that’s why it’s worth exploring, sharing, and putting into practice. 

Unfortunately, research shows that most people who want to speak up either don’t know how or lack the confidence and support to do it. These are people who see and experience the organization day in and day out – employees, customers, suppliers, and others like them, but with a focus on how the business can be more effective and ethical. The challenge for leaders at all levels of an organization is to create a culture where the superpower of speaking up becomes commonplace.  

Unleashing the power of speaking up won’t solve every organizational problem, but it sets the tone and creates a culture that can more effectively address the challenges that stand in the way of progress. It has the potential to promote and sustain things that are good for business, while also preventing unethical behavior. And that’s important because more and more businesses are striving for something that goes well beyond profitability and that hits the benchmarks that come with an increased emphasis on environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies and stakeholder capitalism.  

The problem is, speaking up has been mischaracterized as a rare occurrence that’s put into practice only when circumstances call for extreme opposition of something. The history of whistleblowing is replete with examples of speaking up as a last resort act to stop something bad from happening or continuing. It wasn’t until the infamous Enron and WorldCom scandals that legal protections, codified in the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act, were extended to individuals in public companies. In recent years, some of those protections have been extended to individuals in private companies, but there are still plenty of organizations that aren’t held to the standard of protection for reporting alleged misconduct.  

Moreover, there’s increasing evidence that speaking up about things like personal meaning at work and creating the space for people to voice differing opinions contributes to more responsible, effective, trusted, and caring business cultures. There’s less need for a final act of individual heroism against the business because a culture of speaking up within the organization provides the ounces of prevention that are worth pounds of a cure. 

Creating a speaking up culture involves some of the hardest work an organization will do, but research shows that it pays off in outcomes that directly affect the bottom line. Open and inclusive workplaces encourage and support interactions that are more creative, authentic, candid, purposeful, and engaging, and show a business commitment to broader environmental, social and governance expectations. 

The Walton College Business Integrity Leadership Initiative is exploring the topic of speaking up this fall and will introduce ways that leaders can take on this important work. The “Let’s Talk about Speaking Up” series and the “Business Integrity School” video/podcast season are bringing in speakers and video/podcasts guests from across industry and academia to highlight the importance of the employee voice in a healthy, ethical culture.  

The fall program explores how to voice your values when something seems wrong and how to create a culture that promotes and supports making a business better. Our three renowned guest speakers will provide examples and lessons learned from their experiences when faced with ethical dilemmas:   

Register here and learn more about the fall 2022 Let’s Talk about Speaking Up program and begin to gain a better understanding of speaking up. We also recommend reading our accompanying book of the semester by Mary Gentile, Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right (GVV).

Matt WallerCindy Moehring is the founder and executive chair of the Business Integrity Leadership Initiative at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. She recently retired from Walmart after 20 years, where she served as senior vice president, Global Chief Ethics Officer, and senior vice president, U.S. Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer.