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Self-censorship, taboos and corporate discourse: how freely do we really speak?

My current research on the discourse of morality and moral conflicts in the defence industry, alongside other conversations I have had with friends and former colleagues in other industries, is bringing out a very interesting dichotomy: on the one hand, how much we value, cherish and wish to protect some of the freedoms we enjoy in the Western world, such as the freedom of speech and expressing ourselves; and on the other hand, what might bring us to hide our points of view, thoughts and true feelings, particularly in the corporate environment. It is one of the aspects (and one aspect only!) of the research I am currently working on which I felt was worth sharing and exploring a little more in this article.

First, I should acknowledge that there are nuances in the idea of total free speech, and that for a society to function harmoniously, for people to display polite and respectful behaviours, there is a certain need for self-regulation whereby not all inner thoughts should necessarily be expressed at all times. What I am interested in here however goes beyond this, and concerns ideas, perspectives and feelings regarding moral values, social justice, environmental sustainability and other systemic phenomena.

I don't want to rock the boat

In my discussions, I found that a number of people had perspectives which were at odds with their company's way of operating or products, in one way or another, however that they never felt that they could, and were not intending to, bring them up, effectively performing acts of self-censorship. There were various reasons why they felt that way, many feeling that it was, in fact, an act of self-preservation, fearful of what speaking up might unleash; for others, it came from a place of perceived powerlessness, and belief that they were not in a position to make any significant impact or trigger change.

I'm not in a position to influence anything, anyway

In a study published in 2011, James Detert and Amy Edmondson looked at what they called "Implicit voice theories", aiming to establish the beliefs and assumptions people had and were taking for granted, which were stopping them from speaking up in a hierarchical setting. They identified clear trends, within beliefs including that people needed more data to substantiate their ideas before speaking up, that one should not bypass or undermine one's boss in public, or that speaking up comes with a risk to negatively impact future career prospects. It is no surprise that one of the authors, Amy Edmondson, is also one of the main experts on psychological safety, which involves fostering an environment where people can take risks without fear of personal negative impact, as this can be seen as a way to mitigate the impact of these "implicit voices".

I never really know if I am the only one feeling like this

One of the consequences of employees not speaking up, or sharing feelings or opinions about what their organisation does, its products, or how it operates, is that people end up left alone with their own thoughts, with the potential of a growing feeling of isolation. In my discussions, some reported never sharing how they were feeling about some of their organisation's activities with anyone, wondering whether they were the only one feeling that way, and fearing to be ostracised if they were, while also feeling like an outlier.

We just don't talk about these things. Nobody does.

In some industries, it is understandable that discussing products' use and consequences can be extremely sensitive, especially those which can have direct impact on people's health or life, such as manufacturing tobacco products or weapons. Equally, companies operating in markets with poor records on human rights can face discussions about complex geopolitical matters and deeply rooted cultural heritage. Often, leaders and managers find themselves ill-equipped for these types of conversations, and a general implicit avoidance develops, leading to certain topics becoming taboo. According to the Collins dictionary, a taboo is "a social custom that certain words, subjects, or actions must be avoided because people think they are embarrassing or offensive", and while these are often at play in social settings, they are also very present in the corporate world. Tomi Kallio, in a 2007 article in the Journal of Business Ethics, focuses on corporate taboos related to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR); for example, the taboo of continuous economic growth, involving targets for ever growing productivity and flexibility, how these impact individual employees, and how this can be at odds with claims of social responsibility, yet are not addressed as part of the CSR discourse. The same article acknowledges the challenges and dangers associated with breaking these taboos, and indeed through my interviews, while the intention for change was present, the reality of exactly how to proceed remained abstract. The first step according to Kallio, similar to the first steps of many other problems, is to recognise and identify these taboos, so that at least there can be prospects of a dialogue. It will also help break that feeling of isolation and potential alienation some might feel about their points of view.

Pride, pride, relentless pride...

On the other end of the spectrum from corporate taboos, and one might think perhaps in attempts to counter these, there are topics and narratives which are spoken about very openly within organisations. In fact, these are the ones which people are encouraged to talk about, and reflect the corporate brand and the image organisations try to develop for themselves, which we can call corporate discourse. These often materialise in companies' values or purpose statements, and filter through in external and internal communications strategies. This has transpired in different ways into people's way of talking about their organisation in my experience and interactions, which can be summarised in three categories. First, some acknowledge that it is a corporate message, and while seeing it as such find it engaging and align themselves to it, sharing the same beliefs and aspirational views; second, others align with these messages to the extent that they have internalised them, and will talk about the organisation using the corporate language as their own - what remains to explore is whether this is because their personal views genuinely closely align with the corporate discourse, or because of the influence this corporate discourse has had on them, and on the way they make sense of their company's activities, potentially masking their own beliefs. The third group clearly identify the corporate discourse, however having some personal opinions in conflict with it, in terms of the organisation's impact on the world for example, stress the flaws they can see in it; exacerbated by the presence of taboos, or some challenges left unspoken of, they can end up becoming cynical about the corporate discourse, and disengaged, with thoughts along the lines of "there is this sense of pride in what we do which we're all expected to have, regardless of what else we might think", or "seeing what's being said, everything is absolutely great; but it's not". These different reactions to corporate discourse will in turn have different impact on the way employees engage with the organisation, feel that they belong, and ultimately their level of comfort being part of it.

Having thought about the ways in which self-censorship, taboos and corporate discourse manifest themselves in the corporate environment, and their impact on people, there are two aspects which stand out for me. The first one is about the difference between perceived and actual individual agency. Yes, "we live in a free country", as many often remind us (and themselves). Despite this and the freedom and privileges we undoubtedly enjoy, we can't ignore the fact that certain pressures and manifestations of power still stop us from freely expressing some of our opinions, or subtly influence and shape what we come to believe are our own beliefs. It is therefore important to sometimes take a moment to stop and dig deep to unearth what we truly think and believe, and what we can do to stay true to ourselves. The second one is from the point of view of organisations. I have witnessed on a few occasions the power and positive impact of entering into conversations, or talking publicly about topics which had never before been talked about. Yes, it can be uncomfortable at times, and leaders need to be ready to put themselves in vulnerable positions. However it also gives a sense of openness and authenticity which many will find refreshing, if not inspiring, and open up the possibilities of inviting in new ideas which could have a positive impact on the working environment, business practices, and the wellbeing and integrity of employees.

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