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Harry Cassin
Publisher and Editor

Andy Spalding
Senior Editor

Jessica Tillipman
Senior Editor

Bill Steinman
Senior Editor

Richard L. Cassin
Editor at Large

Elizabeth K. Spahn
Editor Emeritus

Cody Worthington
Contributing Editor

Julie DiMauro
Contributing Editor

Thomas Fox
Contributing Editor

Marc Alain Bohn
Contributing Editor

Bill Waite
Contributing Editor

Shruti J. Shah
Contributing Editor

Russell A. Stamets
Contributing Editor

Richard Bistrong
Contributing Editor

Eric Carlson
Contributing Editor

Can you measure a ‘speak-up’ culture by the number of complaints?

The perception within many organizations is that a limited number of complaints being reported equals fewer problems. So it often becomes a conversation about the numbers. But do many complaints mean many problems, and do fewer complaints mean fewer problems?

I suggest that it’s not about the numbers.

Yes, numbers are easy to relate to. But on the other hand, the numbers can be interpreted to provide the most suited message.

“We have a low number of complaints, therefore we have a solid culture and fewer problems than other organizations.”

But there’s another way to interpret the low number of complaints. “No one dared to speak up. Our problems are there but are staying below the surface.”

The question, then, is whether focusing on the numbers — positive or negative — brings any value to the organization in the end?

Another related issue that is often overlooked when trying to measure a speak-up culture is a tendency to focus on negative outcomes. Out of 99 complaints, there are bound to be a few that should never have ended up in the speak-up system to begin with. So, instead of praising the 99 employees who had the courage to raise real problems, the focus shifts instead to criticizing the few complaints that turned out to be false reports or petty gripes.

How to keep the focus on the positive side of the speak-up culture? Look to leadership. Does the C-suite genuinely value the idea of a speak-up culture? Does it welcome suggestions from outside its ranks? Or, does someone routinely say (by words or actions), “We have too many complaints from employees that aren’t true speak-up cases.”

In other words, is the focus on positive outcomes or not?

The EU Whistleblower Protection directive addresses the fact that protection of whistleblowers is essential and needs to be improved. The directive also requires companies of a certain size, private and public, to have whistleblower systems in place.

This is a positive development. But again, there’s a danger that once the required whistleblower system is in place, the organization will fall into the same unhelpful conversations by overlooking the benefits and focusing on negative outcomes.

So instead, why don’t we use every opportunity to work proactively with feedback systems to ensure openness and transparency, and to welcome anyone who wants to raise a concern. I’m suggesting that we make a conscious effort to see the value of the 99 complaints instead of the problems with the few complaints that weren’t real issues in the end.

Imagine the value a robust speak-up culture can bring to an organization, making it healthier, stronger, and more confident, and at the same time building layers of trust and goodwill.

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