Speak-Up Culture: Three steps towards psychological safety with the APE model
Companies benefit a lot from employees that speak up. Learn how to build trust and establish a healthy corporate culture, following the three steps of the APE model.
A speak-up culture makes employees identify more with their jobs, stay longer in the company and become demonstrably more productive. At first, it may seem uncomfortable for management when their teams start expressing what they really think. But what would be the alternative? Nobody knows the processes better and identifies weak points earlier than those operationally involved. In addition, smouldering interpersonal conflicts or unpunished misconduct can have dramatic consequences for those affected.
In order for employees to raise concerns openly, it is essential to create an environment where they feel comfortable to express honest opinions. In the first part of this article, I raised a Google study that identified psychological safety as the strongest influencing factor for successful teamwork.
But what exactly can companies do to signal this psychological safety to their employees and build a speak-up culture?
At Lytt we have developed an approach called the APE model. Three steps for companies to build a speak-up culture. It consists of creating Awareness, establishing Processes and fostering Engagement.
The APE model begins with a clear understanding and communication of corporate values. If, for instance, a company aims for equal opportunities regardless of gender, religion, generation or cultural background, then the promotion of diversity must be communicated as an integral part of the corporate culture. Have you established a written code of conduct? Such a document can raise awareness of behavioral principles among all employees. For example, you could ask new employees to read and sign the code of conduct at the beginning of their contract to declare their agreement.
At Lytt we call this first step Awareness. An integral part of this step is a zero-tolerance policy for violations against the code of conduct, like any sort of misconduct. In addition, companies must be transparent in communicating reporting processes throughout the organization. It is important that employees who have experienced or observed inappropriate behavior recognize misconduct and know where to turn.
Internal communication, like “respect campaigns” can help to promote a tolerant and respectful workplace culture. Thanks to an increased awareness in the company, you can recognize conflicts faster and tackle them early on.
In the second step, companies must develop competencies and processes to deal with employee reports. You should provide training courses for all managers to prepare them for confidential conversations, for example by simulating role plays. Be aware that it’s not easy to find the right words in those moments! In addition, everyone should agree to clear procedures in advance. Which management level is involved in which incidents? Is there sufficient access to psychological help? Who acts as a mediator if necessary?
At the same time, critical feedback should never simply disappear. This would be a fatal sign for all employees and significantly damage trust. Always remember that companies have a duty of care towards their employees that they should strictly adhere to.
After awareness and processes have been established, you can reap the rewards of your hard work in the final step. Employees should now trust that their concerns will be taken seriously and handled fairly. Once they feel the psychological safety in the company, they know that their suggestions are welcome and that they should not remain silent or look the other way in the event of misconduct. This environment offers ideal conditions for more engagement and genuine speak-up culture.
To promote engagement, companies should offer diverse communication channels that meet the preferences of different personality types. While extroverts are willing to address unpleasant issues themselves, introverts may be reluctant to do so. You can create different structures to support everyone:
- Regular one-on-one feedback sessions promote informal exchange and build trust. In conversations without an agenda and few work-related topics, employees often open up in different ways and ultimately give more honest feedback.
- It is often difficult to address team problems with a direct manager, so it helps to nominate further contact persons. This could be the works council in a large company or someone from HR in a smaller company. Ideally, employees vote to choose a person of trust themselves.
- You should always strive to minimize the fear of negative consequences for people reporting. This is probably the most powerful way to increase employee engagement. Anonymous written communication channels make the first step far easier for employees. For this reason, Lytt offers two completely anonymous channels: The reporting dialogue and the two-way communication to get help or advice. It is important that employees are always in full control of whether and when they want to reveal their identity.
- Every employee is different, so you should provide as many different communication channels as possible. Whether by telephone or e-mail, in person or anonymously — every tip and piece of feedback is better than a “black box” regarding your working climate. Remember: You will only be able to improve continuously by fostering transparent company culture.
Creating a speak-up culture is never easy. But it is an opportunity for companies to be more successful, with happier and healthier employees. You will become more attractive as an employer, grow your innovation strength and reduce the risk of financial or image damage. If you follow the APE model step by step, you will see a sustainable improvement in your own culture — and be rewarded with employees who enjoy coming to work every day.