Speaking up at work can be risky. Here’s how leaders can help cultivate trust with their teams

Speaking up at work can be risky. Here’s how leaders can help cultivate trust with their teams

When Suzi Finkelstein first became involved in leadership development courses twenty years ago, she found the use of the word ‘leadership’ problematic when trying to convince women to enrol.

A lot of women would look at the word, and automatically think “Oh that’s not me, I don’t think I can do that course”, Finkelstein shared with Women’s Agenda recently.

Two decades on, it’s clear that attitudes have shifted, and now many women realise that leadership, in all its forms, can be for them. Our understanding of what leadership entails has also broadened considerably, to the point where we now know that leadership happens everywhere. Whether you want to be a leader or not, most people are already doing it in some capacity.

Finkelstein, the Chief Executive Officer of Women & Leadership Australia, is passionate about encouraging women to share what they do, and their achievements, with others. She thinks it’s an essential ingredient to building more diverse leadership across sectors.

“It’s about encouraging women to own those stories and to share them. Then we, as a community, can start getting used to hearing about leadership from people we don’t expect to hear it from,” Finkelstein says.

“The more we see leadership from these people, the more we’ll have diverse leadership and celebrate it.”

And while seeing more diverse leadership in workplaces remains a priority at Women & Leadership Australia, there’s also a focus on helping all leaders foster psychological safety for their teams.

Psychological safety – the belief that you won’t be criticised or punished for speaking up about an issue at work – relies on trust between individuals.

“To be able to speak up, you need to be able to ask questions without fear that your reputation will be tainted, and you need to be able to share stories and feel like you’re listened to,” Finkelstein says.

“The concept of empathy is so important in this space.”

Suzi Finkelstein is the Chief Executive Officer of Women & Leadership Australia

Speaking to Women’s Agenda, Finkelstein said New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has taught us so much recently about how showing empathy can make us more inclusive leaders.

“She’s taught us so much about vulnerability and strength together, rather than this idea that vulnerability takes away strength.”

This empathetic approach to leadership can go a long way towards building teams that feel psychologically safe in their workplace. It’s something that’s particularly important in the current political climate, as stories of harassment, mistreatment and even assault have come to the surface in Australia’s parliament.

“We have our facilitators and associates that deliver our leadership development programs reporting to us that they’ve never been to so many webinars and workshops where women are saying, ‘I realise what happened to me ten years ago is not ok’ or ‘I realise now that banter in the office, I don’t have to put up with it’,” Finkelstein said.

“We’re seeing so many women now feeling like they have the permission to speak up and realising the environment they are working in is not ok.”

While there’s no simple fix, having all forms of leadership represented in workplaces is crucial.

“It’s not just about finding the pipeline of women and pushing them up; we need to create an environment that’s going to understand and appreciate diverse leadership,” Finkelstein says.

“We know that not all men act in one way, and not all women act in one way, there is no single style. It’s about social context.

“We need to see women who are collaborative, and women who are direct. We need men who are collaborative and men who are direct. We need to be able to understand that styles are fluid, and we all need to learn what the social context is requiring from us.”

Nurturing talent in others is key to Finkelstein’s work in leadership development, and she says it’s especially important for women working in male-dominated industries. Building trusted networks is one way to do this.

“Because women are so often in the minority, it’s so important for them to be in the majority sometimes, coming together in a psychologically safe learning space is not only helpful for our growth but also our wellbeing,” she said.

“There’s a huge power and connectedness that happens when women start becoming part of a network where they can feel safe, and they can share and learn from each other.”

Women & Leadership Australia delivers leadership development programs for women at all stages of their career – find out which course is right for you on the Women & Leadership Australia website.

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