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Dial Up a Speak-Up Culture

Building psychological safety and using a range of technologies, ANZ Banking Group increased the quantity and quality of employees speaking up. Leaders then need to take action and use company values as a guide when speaking out.

​Our focus on a speak-up culture began in earnest when we acknowledged that rating “good” in our company surveys simply wasn’t good enough. 

At ANZ, we need our people to speak up and share their views and ideas, but we also need to do so in a way that strengthens our inclusive culture. We appreciate that with a workforce of more than 40,000 and spanning more than 30 geographies, not everyone will share the same views. Indeed, part of the power of having a diverse workforce is the ability to tap into different experiences, views and ideas. But having a diverse and inclusive workforce means that regardless of those differences, everyone experiences a sense of inclusion and belonging.

We define a speak-up culture as one where people feel safe to speak out—to raise issues and concerns but also ideas. As a bank, it is critical that we can confidently identify and mitigate any risks or issues, and the impact of speaking up starts there. But as we innovate to meet our evolving customer needs, we also need our people to speak up because we want to hear their ideas.

The good news is that with continued focus over the past five years, our speak-up scores have improved by 10 percent. This article summarizes some of our biggest insights and lessons, both pre- and post-2020, with the hope that our experiences may help others focused on fostering a culture where people feel safe to contribute and challenge. 

Data, Jams and Progress

We first interrogated existing data in 2016 to understand what prevented people from speaking up so we could get clear on the problem we were trying to solve. 

Three primary drivers emerged from this first step and pointed toward the need for a multi-faceted response:

  1. There’s a risk if I speak up that I might be lobbied to be the person to fix it—and I’m busy!
  2. It’s dangerous to stick my head up. (I could lose my job.)
  3. What’s the point? If I do speak up, nothing’s going to happen anyway.

We gained further insights from an Innovation Jam later in the year. The Jam lasted three days and involved people from right across multiple countries and continents with leaders actively engaged throughout. 

The Jam was designed to engage employees on a discussion about our overall purpose, values and future. It wasn’t really designed as an intervention on speak-up culture but obviously helped with addressing the cultural tone aligned with the start of our new CEO, Shayne Elliott. Conversations grew throughout the Jam and analytics helped us identify key themes. Off the back of this, we began tackling some of the biggest ideas and issues raised by our people. Cross-functional teams were established to identify root causes and implement solutions at pace using agile methodologies. 

This addressed people’s concern that there’s no point in speaking up because nothing happens. The response was sponsored by Shayne Elliott, and a number of members of the executive committee regularly attended the showcases, helping to clear roadblocks to fast-track delivery and demonstrating we were listening and keen to help. Over the course of 18 months we were able to address around 40 issues and opportunities raised through the Jam, reinforcing that we will not only listen to input, we’ll also do something about it.  

Our employees have absolutely no problem when it comes to approaching Shayne Elliott with ideas or comments. This stems from an ongoing series of CEO-level initiatives to demonstrate openness, transparency and responsiveness. They regularly send him direct emails, and when Elliott gets onto Yammer, our internal social media tool, and says “Talk to me,” the effect is instant and epic. However, while it’s wonderful that our people feel so comfortable talking to him this way, it’s not sustainable. Neither is running enterprise-level initiatives like the Jam.

Using Huddles to Create Sustainability

To be sustainable, real action needs to generate within the teams throughout the organization, not just with top leadership. We asked ourselves, “If you want teams to have honest conversations, what’s the key ingredient?” The answer is psychological safety.1 

We knew we had to address concerns about the personal risk involved in speaking up, so we focused on how to best create psychological safety at the team level. Our key intervention here was a series of Culture Huddles, or guides to enable team leaders to facilitate conversations with their teams. We found this team-level approach crucial to the speak-up culture. As Culture Amp performance and engagement specialists say, culture is led from the top but teams are what bring it to life.2

As it happened, all our work on speak-up was occurring while we were adopting more agile ways of working, which is predicated on regular, consistent feedback and retrospectives. For Culture Huddles, we educated our team leaders in how to build safety and confidence within their teams. We needed people to feel safe in providing both positive and negative feedback at the team level—safety not just in giving feedback but, for our leaders, in receiving it. We showed you can build that safety level by regularly checking in with people and being in the moment with feedback that’s constructive and well received. Through practicing regular conversations, our teams gradually felt safer talking about the bigger issues. They learned that speaking up is different from whistleblowing and that it can be used for sharing and promoting their ideas. 

Culture Huddles can’t be rushed. There needs to be time allowed for the new ways of thinking to sink in. Retrospectives are woven into the process so groups can review their progress and check how the feedback is, or isn’t, working and then continue to tweak and improve it. Culture Huddles create an environment for regular and honest discussion within teams.

Keeping the Conversation Alive and Respectful

Advances in technology have meant we no longer need external support to engage in regular conversation with people right across the organization. Yammer took off like a rocket when we introduced it in 2018, and has provided a platform for people to start and contribute to conversations among like-minded colleagues through online communities, which for us range from mental health and well-being, technology, and leadership to questions and answers on all things home lending for our frontline bankers. It also provides a place for our people to share their views and ideas on just about anything with a broad reach across the entire organization.

While Yammer has been great for hosting enterprise-wide conversations, it also gives us a terrific read on hot topics or specific areas of interest based on where the conversation goes and how people engage. The challenge is around when and how to intervene and steer the conversation or address specific content. 

We have faced a similar challenge on Big Calls—town halls or similar large-scale video or conference calls. We often use a chat tool alongside these, where people can ask questions and the most popular submissions are voted up. Our leaders respond live and it’s a great way of facilitating honest and authentic conversation around issues that are on our people’s minds. The challenge is many of these tools are anonymous, so people can pose questions or use language or tone that might not be well received by everyone. 

We didn’t want to create a load of bureaucracy, so we turned to our values to help us navigate. Our ICARE values—Integrity, Collaboration, Accountability, Respect and Excellence—are at the heart of our culture, and we worked to embed them in our online and Big Call dialogues. Part of strengthening speak-up has been about helping people understand effective collaboration requires healthy challenges. We encourage accountability by asking people to attach their names to questions and comments rather than posting anonymously, but ultimately we use respect to guide intervention.

This framing had been created before 2020, and the events and topics of that year put our system to the test. On the couple occasions when we have intervened and removed content from Yammer (and it has only been a couple, which is amazing given we had almost 250,000 posts and replies in 2020), it has been because we felt the comments didn’t demonstrate respect and had potential to undermine our inclusive culture. By demonstrating best practices ourselves, we are able to construct online conversations that can thrive. 

We have a community manager whose role is to upskill the entire organization on what healthy conversation looks like. We also have a few simple principles, which we call Yammer House Rules, that we ask everyone to sign so they know the boundaries right from the outset. Yammer enables self-moderation through reported conversations. Users can report something to our community manager and have a conversation offline about whether it is in line with our house rules. 

Similarly, our CEO and other leaders have called out when the tone of questions asked through anonymous polling tools has been disrespectful to colleagues during Big Calls. Over the course of 2020, we observed an interesting follow-on effect from this: peers on the call began calling out these behaviors themselves. Conversations were effectively becoming moderated at the team level.

This strong tone from the top, as well as reinforcement through the house rules, has created an environment where people feel safe to speak up and challenge disrespectful behavior from their colleagues. People see others speaking up and the cultural cycle grows in a healthy, uplifting way.

Speaking Out as a Company

One other aspect to navigate is how we address complex issues and agree where we will not only speak up but out, through words or actions more publicly as an organization. We worked closely with The Ethics Centre in Sydney to develop an ethical decision-making framework, based on ANZ’s purpose (why we exist), values (what is good) and a new set of decision-making principles (what is right). 

Our principles are:

  • Protect and enhance each person’s ability and freedom to choose.
  • Minimize potential and actual harm, especially for the vulnerable.
  • Support progressive practices that benefit people, communities and industries.
  • Have a real impact on some of society’s big challenges.
  • Show leadership and challenge convention.
  • Advance ANZ’s strategic and commercial interests.
  • Be proud to offer a complete public account of our decisions and actions.

This provides a common framework to deliberate complex issues, enabling us to consider both what we should do and what we can do in various scenarios. The framework is being used by leaders across the bank and by our Ethics and Responsible Business Committee, a governing body chaired by our CEO, which also reports regularly to a board sub-committee. More than 700 of our leaders have been trained in the framework and are able to access a range of tools to support them in their application. They are also able to use The Ethics Centre’s Ethi-call, an independent service provided by trained counselors who can provide guidance to work through challenges. 

Hindsight from 2020

Being an international business during COVID-19 means we have all been experiencing the pandemic in different ways at different times. Lockdowns and concerns for employee and customer safety led us into new ways of working with challenges we’ve never seen before. Through this, we’ve been able to see the benefits of our reinforcement of speak-up culture. 

Earlier this year we were named #1 in the Australian Financial Review Boss Best Places to Work list for the Australia and New Zealand banking and financial services sector. Amongst the factors contributing to our win was our enterprise-wide conversations around what we have been learning and what’s been working well.

We had a huge increase in the number of webinars and other events in 2020, through a range of technologies. We had record usage on Yammer, including discussions on what the bank might look like in the future, where everyone could get involved and share what they believed people would need in the workplace of tomorrow. We recognized the world has shifted fundamentally—it’s never going to go back to what it was before. We worked together to define how we would work in the future when we returned to work.3

We needed to know how our people felt about returning to offices after nearly a year of many working from home and, thanks to the firmly established culture, we have been able to get honest, respectful and confident responses that we can now act on and use to show the culture in motion. We’ve applied our framework on ethical decisions we’ve had along the way and, by what people and industry are telling us, it’s working.

We need freedom of speech in our organization. But we never want someone in our team feeling targeted or vulnerable. Planting firm foundations—strong company values and a thoughtful framework—can help build a business that will be culturally safe and ready for the times people need to speak up.  

Kathryn van der Merwe, Ph.D., is Group Executive, Talent and Culture, at ANZ Banking Group. 


1 Amy Edmonson talks about creating a psychologically safe workplace in a Tedx Talk:


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