Voice of the System

I know who it was, he left the company

It’s that season again. LinkedIn is flooded with people sharing the news of a new job. What I notice is, some people, who I would identify as a voice of the system, left their company. Whatever reason these people had to leave, I believe the leadership team of these companies should take a deep and hard look at the reason why they left. Maybe something is broken in their system and they have to start to listen to the voice in their system.

The Voice of the System are people who do not only have (and share) their individual opinion or vision. They sense and share what is happening in the system. Are closely connected to the values of this system and they function as the air valve when there is pressure in the system. They speak on behalf of the system they are a part of. Another entity for leaders to take into account and to listen to.

Unheard voice left the company

Last year, I had a conversation with a department manager and asked him who the voice of their system is. He fell silent, after few minutes he replied:

‘I don’t know. I know who it was, he left the company a few months ago’.

So, I asked him, how he felt about this person leaving. He replied that he was a little relieved to see this person go. Because this person was continuously pointing out things that to his eyes were not OK. Sometimes, this resulted in some irritation and frustration with this manager. I asked him, after this person left, if things got better? To be honest, he replied, no! Someone else, who hardly spoke up before, now started doing the same thing.

Transfer of the voice

This is the most interesting aspect of the voice of the system. We think, if someone speaks up, they do so on their own behalf. However, the voice of the system speaks on behalf of the entire system, it just happens to be very close to their personal beliefs. There is a very thin line between these two voices, one’s personal opinion and that of the system.

If the voice of the system leaves the company, there is something wrong in the system. The problem is still there and the next person who’s own values are closest to the systems’ values will start to speak up.

Some of the companies I follow closely on LinkedIn have seen over 3 to 5 voices of the system leave within a few years. Most likely there is a problem in the system that is still not fixed. Over time the new voice will also leave the company. A decision they do not taken overnight but is the only thing remaining a voice can do to be heard.

The Lewis Resistance Line

Before a voice of the system leaves the organization, there are other types of behavior that occur first. These signs of resistance are visualized in the Lewis Resistance line. Starting with (sarcastic) jokes and if unheard, eventually results in war or withdrawal (people leaving).

Lewis Resistance Line

Have you ever seen or heard yourself or someone within your company show this kind of behavior? Ask yourself, what could possibly have lead to this behavior? If you look back at the people leaving the company, have they all walked the Lewis Resistance Line?

Begin to listen to this voice of the system! Otherwise you’ll lose committed people who’ve had the courage and cared enough about your company, to speak up. 

Voice of the System

A new voice a leader should listen to

Do you always hear the same people speak up when you present a new idea or when you ask for feedback? You might be dealing with an important voice here. The voice of the system! A voice any leader should (learn to) listen to. If you don’t? It will never go away!

This is how I would describe a system.

The system is a complex entity that contains all the knowledge, emotions, thoughts and memories of the entire group of people. This system has its own purpose, value system. And it has a voice!

Defining the voice of the system

The Voice of the System are people who do not only have (and share) their individual opinion or vision. They sense and share what is happening in the system. Are closely connected to the values of this system and they function as the air valve when there is pressure in the system. They speak on behalf of the system they are a part of. Another entity for leaders to take into account and to listen to.

A few months ago, I spoke at Agile 2019 in Washington D.C. on this topic. And the response I received during this session was the same as any other conversation I had about the topic. As soon as I explained what this voice is, people could very quickly identify the voice in their system.

Think about this for a minute, who is the voice in your system?

Recognize the Voice in your System

If you haven’t already identified this voice, here are some signs to look for.

They speak up!

This is an obvious one but a crucial sign. When no one speaks up, you have a big problem in your system!

Loyal to the system values

A voice of the system has a close connection between the values of the system (for example the organizational values) and their own. If one of these values is under pressure or at risk, they will be the first to speak up!

Dedicated to the system

Because of the close connection of values they tend to be very dedicated to the system. They made a conscious decision based on the purpose of your organization and its norms and values to dedicate their full self to the system!

Sense of state of the system

When there is pressure, stress or unrest in the system they will feel this immediately. There is a close link to their own values and that of the system they are part of. They are the first to tell you the system is under pressure. They act the same way as the air valve on a tire. If there is pressure on the tire, that is the first place the air will come out (if you are lucky and you monitor the pressure).


Many people during my session at Agile 2019 were able to identify who used to be this voice. And it turned out a lot of them gave up being the voice and left the organization or were silenced by leadership. However, if this voice decides to leave, the pressure is still there and the voice of the system is transferred to a different person in the system. A new voice of the system!

Fed by the system (through historical events)

The voice of a system operates in the historical context of the system. It’s things we have done before and still need to be done now, which is proof the system is still there. Takeovers that haven’t been dealt with properly leaving this open wound in the system. All historical events feed this voice. They feed the system. The things the system has experienced together shape the values of the system.

It’s never the boss!

One important thing to take into account. It is never the hierarchical leader of the system. It’s never the boss! Within a leadership team there can be a voice of the system as well, within that smaller system of the leadership team. This voice always originate from deeply within the system. 

Listening to the Voice of the System

Now that you have identified the voice of the system, it is crucial for leaders to listen to this voice. An extra voice that needs some extra attention!

Create safety for the voice to speak up

In an unsafe environment people will feel less likely to speak up. This also applies to the voice of the system. Although they will usually speak up first, if there is no safety, this voice will be quiet and find different means to speak up (strike, slow down, war or leave). Find inspiration on creating safety in the video below.

Incorporate this voice into your decision making

Bringing on board this important voice, that person or those persons who tend to speak on behalf of the entire system will increase you changes of effective decision making and acceptance of the decisions made. A useful technique to apply is Deep Democracy.

Connect the voice to the entrepreneurs

The voice of the system only has a voice. Actually fixing what is under pressure, you also need to identify those who have the entrepreneurial abilities to fix whatever needs fixing. It can be the same person if you are lucky, but don’t count of it.

A new voice

The Voice of the System is an entity you, especially as a leader, should be aware of it being an essential source of information on the state of your team/department or organization. It is the Voice of the system and not the personal opinion of the person being the voice. They feel very connected to the norms and values of the system but do not personify the system! They are the air valves!

You can try to ignore the voice but it will never go away!

Entrepreneurability Voice of the System

Forget building trust, focus on psychological safety

Imagine this, you are at the weekly company meeting in a room of 60 people. All of them are co-workers who you have been working with for several years. You feel engaged and committed to the goal set by your company. And there has always been a feeling of openness, respect and the ability to discuss new or other ideas. You feel there is safety! While the CEO is presenting a new idea, you feel this is not a good idea. You feel it is in conflict with the company culture. So, like you have always done, you raise your hand and speak up. Unlike similar earlier situations, your comment gets waved away, followed by a reprimande of the CEO in front of the entire group:

“I don’t like your negative attitude , this idea has been thought of long and hard. I am sick of you constantly asking about ‘why this decision is being made’ and you proposing other ideas, reopening the discussion. Stop doing that!”

How would you feel?

Shocked, humiliated and heartbroken. That’s how I felt. In complete shock because I was under the impression I worked in an psychologically safe environment. We were enabled – and even expected – to speak up when we had different ideas. That’s what made it a great company. But somewhere along the way, things had changed and I hadn’t noticed there was no longer a safe environment. Actually, there was psychological safety, from my own team. During the break right after the incident, while I was sitting at a table looking down, feeling embarrassed, humiliated and fighting against tears. My team sat down, forming a protective circle around me. No words were spoken, but it felt very safe. After that moment, safety was gone and hardly anyone spoke up with a different opinion during those company meetings for a very long time.

Feeling safe

A few weeks ago I found a movie shared by Simon Reindl, also a Professional Scrum Trainer, about Psychological safety. This movie made an huge impact on me. I wasn’t aware of the concept but I could relate it to my experience described above. Please take a few minutes to watch this video.

We have all been in a situation where it didn’t feel right or safe to speak up. Or to ask a question. We all have had those gossip-ish discussions at the coffee machine after the presentation of the new 5 year strategy, while you had a 5 year strategy presented last year as well. Or one of those useless team retreats. Take the next step as a team, where a lot of post-its are spilled with ‘world peace’ like phrases. In the future we want to improve our communication, speak up and be proactive. A day not having to work, get a free lunch and go back to doing the same thing we were already doing. Not feeling safe to address the elephant in the room.

Psychological safety

Psychological safety is the belief that no one will be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.

It is a group-level construct, meaning that is something experienced by the entire group. As a group, each individual perceives that the group will give them the benefit of the doubt when they take a risk. Opposed to trust, meaning that I as an individual give my fellow team members the benefit of the doubt when I take a risk. Do I trust my fellow team members enough they will back me up is an individuals. Basically making a 1-1 economic risk assessment trying to figure out how a certain action will impact my position in a group.

Trust is a “conscious calculation of advantages, a calculation that in turn is based on an explicit and internally consistent value system” (Schelling, 1960: 4; ref in Kramer, 1999). With trust we focus on others potential actions and trustworthiness to protect ourselves. When we look a psychological safety, it is slightly different. Do others give you the benefit of the doubt based on your actions?

Not trust but safety!

Over the last couple of years I have referred to the 5 dysfunctions of a team by Patrick Lencioni in many of our training courses and workshops. And when working with teams, one of the first items on the agenda was building trust. But trust is the wrong thing to focus on and more difficult to influence on a team level. Psychological safety is a group based characteristic based on the level on interpersonal safety each of the members of the team experience. They often hold similar perceptions of psychological safety. Because teams have many of the same influences and experiences together. For example, they often share the same manager, go though the same hiring and review procedures.

The presence or absence of psychological safety tends to be experienced at the group level of analysis (Edmondson, 1999a), unlike trust, which pertains primarily to a dyadic relationship –whether between individuals or collectives such as firms (as in supplier relationships).

Amy Edmondson, 2003

How to build psychological safety

Even Google has learned that their best teams had psychological safety. It’s the first step towards great teams, it enables innovation, risk taking, group decision making and much more. Amy Edmondson described three things you can do as a leader to enable psychological safety.

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem, as opposed to an execution problem
    So the work we do nowadays is so complex that we cannot know the precise outcome and which path to follow upfront. However, we have been modeling our work is such a way. This is why in the past 10 years we are focus more on agility and this is why the Scrum Framework is so successful, since it accommodated collaboration in a complex environment. Acknowledging that we know less then we do know frames the work as a learning problem. Look into the Cynefin framework
  2. Acknowledge you own fallibility
    Acknowledge you don’t know everything and inviting people to come to help. For example, when people use TLA’s (Three Letter Abbreviations), ask what they mean instead of mindless nodding you pretend to understand. You’ll be surprised how hard people need to think about what they actually mean.
  3. Model curiosity by asking a lot of questions
    The best model on the market to start modeling curiosity is the Scrum Framework. A lightweight framework with focussed events where asking questions and engaging in conversation is facilitated. Or like I did once with a team that tended to assume the customer thought of everything. I asked the team: “I can think of at least three things that are unclear and I will ask them, I expect at least three question from you.” Worked great and over time they started asking question by themselves.

There are more steps to take but these are the first and very difficult to do. Start creating psychological safety in your organizations today! Or you might end up with an organization where bad things happen for you, for your team members or customers.

Vlog Voice of the System

Lastige mensen in organisaties met groeipijn – Entrepreneurability Vlog #2

De stretch tussen structuur en cultuur. Snel groeiende organisaties hebben vaak last van groeipijn. De beweging die veel organisaties maken is door een stevige governance structuur neer te zetten. Deze gaat ten koste van de bedrijfscultuur. De mensen de cultuur bewaken vanuit de organisatie zijn de zogeheten ‘Voice of the System’. Deze editie bespreken wij waarom deze groep mensen zo belangrijk zijn voor snel groeiende organisaties.