COO Magazine Q1 2024

Becky Hewitt

CEO of purpose-led culture
and behaviour change

Good Culture and Good Conduct

How a ‘speak up culture’ can mitigate risk, supercharge innovation and growth, and support diverse, engaged and healthy cultures.

The topic of culture and conduct has never been higher on the agenda. News headlines have been dominated by stark examples – from business, media, politics and beyond – of the human, reputational and financial damage inflicted by toxic cultures or poor conduct, where inclusion, values, behaviours and the safety to speak up, have fallen short. Expectations around culture and conduct – and what is socially, ethically and legally acceptable – are rightly changing. Regulatory and media scrutiny and the demand for transparency are intensifying.

There are new requirements for Boards and Executives to be investigating and investing in culture, and to evidence clear actions for measuring, monitoring, overseeing and addressing organisational cultural challenges. Financial impact, when poor conduct comes to light, is profound. Many of us will be able to think of an example where major businesses closed, were upended and destabilised by culture and conduct issues with huge financial consequences and lost value for their customers, shareholders, people, and wider communities. Businesses need to ensure they are keeping up.

What is the role of behaviour change and organisational culture?

An all too common response to this challenge is to suggest that poor conduct is largely about individual behaviour – a case of swiftly managing the ‘bad apples’. Another is to double down on rules, policies and command-and-control styles of leadership. Of course, individual ownership and accountability are always key, as are robustly upheld policies and regulations about key conduct questions. But policies alone cannot safeguard against poor conduct. In reality, you can have all the standards in the world, but if the culture is toxic, and psychological safety is absent, poor conduct will persist.

Companies who are getting this right are going much deeper than rules and policies, to co-design the mindsets, behaviours, values, leadership role-modelling and social norms that define how things really get done in their organisation and ensure critical policies and standards are lived and upheld. Above all, the foundation of this work is behaviour change. Behaviour change that builds a culture where providing challenge, sharing different perspectives, asking questions, raising concerns, speaking truth to power, bringing fresh thinking and taking risks is psychologically safe – for everyone – throughout the organisation. These lived behaviours and experiences, coupled with genuinely listening to and appropriately acting on the voices of your people, are how we define the true ‘speak up culture’ which is at the heart of good conduct.

Why prioritise a ‘speak up culture’?

Building a culture where people are encouraged to speak up is a business imperative. It helps identify risks and issues early, and prevents poor conduct from being normalised, tolerated or overlooked. It supports openly sharing and learning from mistakes as part of a culture of continuous improvement. It cultivates more equitable environments where more people feel safe sharing their perspectives and a greater diversity of ideas and insights are heard and acted on. And, beyond protecting against poor conduct, a speak up culture promotes innovation, adaptability, resilience, experimentation, commitment, empowerment and creativity. The numbers speak for themselves…

What happens when you get it right?

What happens when you get it wrong?

“The big risk is about not harnessing the power of your people. Whether that’s not harnessing the power of them speaking up and raising concerns to mitigate risk or of them being comfortable sharing new ideas to deliver greater services for your customers and clients. You either risk unethical behaviour or your organisation stagnating and not growing and evolving.”
Thomas Lassetter, Associate Director, Kin&Co

What makes a ‘speak up culture’ succeed?

“Creating a ‘speak up culture’, on one hand, is really simple – just start really listening to your colleagues and acting on it. On the other hand, we are dealing with human dynamics, and your speak up culture is continually shaping, and being shaped by how everyone interacts with each other and the business. To really create a dynamic and healthy speak up culture, and all that brings – takes reflection, nuance and sustained conscious action across your business. It takes effort, but the payoff is immeasurable.”
Beth King, Business Psychologist, Kin&Co

A ‘speak up culture’ is not just one simple idea, mandate or set of policies. Instead, it is a deep cultural orientation that allows the voice of employees to drive the heart of your organisation. There are three key dynamics that to pay attention to.

1. Speaking up is influenced at many levels: At its core, speaking up is something that happens within a relationship. However, that relationship always exists within a multi-layered system, which means that a ‘speak up culture’ needs to be addressed at many levels. One of these levels cannot succeed without the other.

a. Individuals need the mindset that “I can and want to speak up” supported by leaders who demonstrate “I listen because I value what individuals have to say”.
b. Organisations need to champion and live the principle “we care about the employee voice” underpinned by clear practices and channels that create space, clarity and confidence.
c. Close attention also needs to be paid to the broader organisational, societal and cultural norms which influence power dynamics, equity, whose voices are heard, sought out and acted on and psychological safety.

2. Listening up is as important as speaking up: To truly hear your employees’ voice, there needs to be an equal focus on building the capabilities, skills, attitudes and actions of receivers – and particularly leaders – to listen up. For speaking up to flourish, it needs to be absolutely clear it is welcomed, encouraged, celebrated and acted on. Everyone needs consistently to walk the talk on this – from the Board, to the Executive and the wider organisation.

3. There are different types of speaking up – the formal and informal, or the prohibitive and promotive: Often when we think of speaking up we are thinking of the more formal processes such as whistleblowing. Whilst important this is just a small aspect of a rich speak up culture which happens in regular meetings from the semi-formal town halls through to informal day-to-day interactions between colleagues. These interactions can be both ‘prohibitive’ where people are speaking up with concerns or challenges to how something is currently done, and ‘promotive’ where people are bringing innovations, ideas and celebration. It is important to pay attention to all these aspects and the conditions for each to thrive. Being clear on what types of speak-up you are enabling or disabling and what you require more of/less of is key to making the right shifts.

Spotlight on the human side of listening up

The reality is that feedback, challenge, and disagreement can be hard. It can feel pretty vulnerable and crunchy to hear the tough stuff. To acknowledge and own the things we got wrong and wish we had done better. To hear about failure, mistakes, or risks that may negatively impact our organisation. To welcome dissent, new, different, or disruptive perspectives that require things to change. Here are some principles that are helping me right now: 

1. Remembering that speaking up, particularly to a CEO, is usually an act of loyalty from someone who has the courage to take a risk, and say what’s true, for the good of the organisation.

2. Being mindful about the ‘micro signals’ I am sending. The little things I do that show I am not actually available for someone to share with me. For example, am I giving off such a busy vibe that people don’t share because they don’t want to encroach on my time, or be a nuisance?

3. Asking myself “Whose voice am I not hearing?”, “whose voices am I unconsciously biased to pay more attention to?” and “whose do I pay less attention to and why?” and seeking out different perspectives.

So what can I do now?

Building a speak up culture can feel daunting, but there are some key questions you can be asking in your organisation now.

Managing Risk

– What hidden culture risks don’t you know about?

– How prepared are you if a risk escalates ?

– Do you have a plan in place to identify and address

Inclusion, Equity and Diversity of


– Would all your people feel safe enough to speak up and be honest?

– Whose voices are you not hearing and why?

– How would you know, and what data do you have to support this?


– Do you have the right data and frameworks to prove you take culture, conduct, speaking up and safety seriously?


– How confident are you that your leaders are ‘walking the talk’ on values and behaviours every day

– What behaviours are you accepting and normalising that need attention and management?

How Kin&Co Can Help

If you’re keen to start by diagnosing what your speak up culture looks like today, we can support you to run a speak up diagnostic for your organisation, business area or team, or to find out more about how we can support.

Alternatively, join Kin&Co and fellow leaders committed to challenging the status quo and creating a speak up culture in their organisation in this half-day workshop. You will have the opportunity to:

  • Explore the cultural and behavioural principles required to promote speaking up with guidance from experts in the field who are partnering with clients on these challenges today.
  • Join a community of leaders across different industries to share insights about what does and doesn’t work.
  • Get stuck into activating the speak up opportunities and challenges you are currently facing, and leave with ideas you can immediately bring to life.

Contact Thomas Lassetter () to find out more.

About Kin&Co

Kin&Co are a disruptive consultancy specialising in purpose and culture-led change management.  We help leading global businesses, governments, and nonprofits use purpose, culture and behavioural science to supercharge performance, save costs and deliver on their strategy – to create a more sustainable, healthy and equal world, and make work better for all people.

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