How to get employees to speak up

Employee and organisational silence are well-documented pain points. How are leaders supposed to know what’s really going on if no one is really candid? How is HR supposed to support individuals and represent organisational needs if it’s unclear what’s really happening? How do we get visibility, especially in hybrid or remote environments?

It is one thing to tell employees – your voice matters, speak up. It’s another to be an organisation that values, creates the conditions for and rewards employee voice.

For employees to speak up, organisations have to acknowledge – and provide solutions for – the real and perceived costs associated with speaking up. Including, but not limited to time, energy, reputation, relationship and risk of retaliation. Unless an organisation actively cultivates psychological safety and incentivises voice, the benefits of speaking up rarely outweigh the costs.

Speaking up, listening and hearing:

Employers failing to give staff a voice at work

UK employees feel silenced and ignored by employers

Why HR should consider an employee listening strategy to improve engagement

In short, want employees to speak up? Don’t just tell them to speak up. Translate good intentions of wanting employee voice into practical impact by doing these three things:

Measure the ability to listen across differences as a leadership competency

More than anything else, leaders’ behaviour determines organisational culture.

Letting 'George just be George' because he is a rainmaker sends the message that the interests of an individual or bottom-line impact are more important than employees themselves.

High-power individuals within organisations need to be able to receive feedback with curiosity, consider points of view different than their own and incentivise open communication by demonstrating appreciation to employees who share different perspectives. Add 'ability to listen across differences' to the list of competencies against which you’re measuring and promoting leaders.

Be honest about the culture you’re building

Tech companies Basecamp and Coinbase banned talking about politics at work to be mission focused and reduce employee distraction at work.

These decisions resulted in parts of the employee population leaving.

Being intellectually honest about company culture allows employees to make informed decisions about where to work. Offer clarity about whether you want people to speak up, about what and in what contexts. What topics, if any, are off limits? Employees shouldn’t have to figure out unwritten rules by trial and error.

Change the cost calculus by rewarding voice

'If I speak up, nothing will happen' is a typical employee experience.

Or worse, 'if I speak up, I’ll be branded as the troublemaker'. If organisations are committed to continuous improvement, pointing out opportunity for improvement should be welcome.

Yet employees who question the status quo are too often shunned. Reduce the cost to the employee by providing clarity and accountability for what happens next. A\ssign a directly responsible owner to look into the issue and drive solutions on a clearly communicated timeline. Change the narrative around those who speak up from troublemaker to trailblazer. Only then, does it start to make sense for employees to speak up.

Elaine Lin Hering is a lecturer at Harvard Law School and managing partner of Triad Consulting Group