Permission to Speak: The Dignity and Power of Speech

by Kelly Vandever

In their May 2015 issue, Toastmaster magazine republished an article titled, The Hanoi Hilton Toastmasters by Jan Henrikson (the article was originally published in the October 1999).

I was struck by the quote, “The [Toastmasters] activities were aimed at helping the men rebuild their dignity. They spoke to feel themselves alive, to activate the elegance and nobility of the human spirit under impossible circumstances.”

While an Ensign in the US Navy, I had the privilege of hearing CDR Ralph Gaither speak to a group of newly commissioned officers. CDR Gaither was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than 7 years. While I don’t remember exactly what he said (it’s been 30 years since I heard him speak), I do remember a feeling of awe and respect for him and a sense of pride in the country I served.

Perhaps it was meeting him so early in my career or because I was a woman in the military, but I have thought about how unimaginably horrible it would be to live through torture. But before reading this article, I had never really considered what torture it would be to not be able to speak…or that the spoken word would have the power to help these men rebuild their dignity and activate their human spirit.

My Mind Jumped to Corporate America

I don’t know why my mind went there, but while reading this article, I was struck with sadness that so many who work in corporate America don’t feel they have the ability to speak up either.

I know, I know. It’s a horrible comparison.

Corporate America is not the same as torture inflicted on prisoners of war.

Yet, if the inability to express your thoughts verbally is torture in a POW camp, what’s the state of affairs where people don’t have the ability to speak up freely and honestly in the workplace because of fear of retribution or judgment?

The Agile Mindset

When I first began hearing about Agile, it sounded like just another way to work programmers to death.  I didn’t understand the mindset behind the approach.

The more I learn from leaders who are thriving in Agile environments, the better I come to understand that the mindset… transparency between the business and IT, the self-managed team of people deciding how they’ll do their work … the more I see the approach as a way to get the best from people and give them a voice in the work.  I like what Susan McIntosh’s definition of the Agile mindset.

But not everyone works in an Agile environment.  And just because an organization claims to be Agile, it doesn’t mean that the mindset matches the practices.  So is speaking up still important?

The Words Will Come Out

If you can’t speak up at work, the words can still come out. Just not at work or not with your boss.

Not being able to speak freely at work comes out in other forms…

Employees badmouthing the organization to…their spouse, drinking buddies, mom & dad, BFF…

Employees talking with co-workers and outside of work about how they feel…hopeless, unheard, undervalued…

Employees wondering…do they even care, how stupid are they, there’s got to be a better place to work…


Where the Sadness Comes In

This makes me sad because there are well-meaning bosses who want to hear what their employees have to say, but who don’t know how to give their staffs “permission to speak.”

There are employees out there who have ideas that would make the products and services they provide better.

There are employees who know their employers could save money, and potentially someone’s job, if a key process was changed.

I know this is true from my experiences as an employee, as a manager and working with my clients through over the last nine years.

Give Permission to Speak

The posts on this blog posts are focused on…

Leaders and managers who want to give their people “permission to speak” but aren’t sure how to achieve openness in the corporate environments in which they work.

Leaders and managers who see that the executives are giving all employees permission to speak by installing enterprise social tools like Yammer or IBM Connections but who struggle with how to handle this new openness while still being accountable for the productivity of their teams.

Leaders and managers who believe their organizations will benefit from better communications up, down, and across the organization but just aren’t sure how to do it.

Leaders and managers who want to live with an Agile mindset but need to unlearn some of their existing habits.

I hope the leaders who read these posts will be well served and that they and their people will enjoy the dignity and the full activation that comes from bringing your whole human-ness to work.



Kelly Vandever is a leadership and communications expert who helps leaders and organizations thrive in today’s attention-deficit, entertain-me-now, wait-while-I-post-that-on-Facebook world.   Connect with Kelly and discover how being professionally human can bring you better business results. 

Contact Kelly by phone at 770-597-1108, email her or tweet her @KellyVandever.

0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ellen Seskin Smith
5 years ago

Ellen Seskin Smith liked this on Facebook.

Phil Wrobel
5 years ago

Phil Wrobel liked this on Facebook.

Jerry W. Allen
5 years ago

Jerry W. Allen liked this on Facebook.

Jemeka Price White
5 years ago

Jemeka Price White liked this on Facebook.