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Is Silence Golden? How Employee Voice is Worth Far More

Employee voice — the opportunity for employees to raise concerns — has long been championed as a fundamental right for workers. In fact, the earliest trade unions were born as a way of representing workers’ viewpoints in an era of little protection against dangerous conditions. More recently, the UK Corporate Governance Code (July 2018) has ruled that a company’s board is responsible for ensuring that workers can raise their concerns:

The board should ensure that workforce policies and practices are consistent with the company’s values and support its long-term sustainable success. The workforce should be able to raise any concerns.

That all sounds good in practice but, in reality, employees are often reluctant to voice their opinions at work. One of the main reasons is that they are given so few opportunities to speak. On average, employees only give feedback in performance conversations once or twice a year. Our research has shown that only 11% of employers survey their employees more than once a year, and 25% of employers survey them every other year or less frequently.

Employees want more opportunities to participate — to have a real voice rather than just a tick-box exercise for HR. 80% of employees who had completed a staff survey in the last year felt like it made no difference to their working lives.  When employees aren’t heard, they don’t feel valued. When that happens, they leave their jobs.

Employee turnover is a problem that companies can prevent.  

A Gallup study showed that 52% of quitting employees said that their managers or organizations could have said or done something to stop them from leaving. Another 51% said that in the three months before they left, no one in their company had spoken to them about their job satisfaction or future. Listening to your employee’s voice is the first step in addressing the growing employee retention problem.

Employee Voice in the Workplace

Employee voice is how employees communicate their views to their employers and influence matters that affect them at work. For employers, an effective employee voice contributes to productivity, innovation and overall workplace improvement. For employees, it brings about greater job satisfaction, influence and opportunities for development.

From the employer’s perspective, it is often feared that employee voice opens up a Pandora’s box of negativity. However, this is largely unfounded. Yes, there may be bad news, but it is always better to address it in a timely manner before it festers.  Having open, honest conversations with employees often invites more creative ideas and better collaboration.

Employee Voice and Social Media

A recent report by the CIPD found that 13% of employees share their feelings about work on social media. Because of this, some companies have opted to engage with their employees over social media to create a discussion on the issues affecting them. However, the bigger concern for companies is when employees share their anonymous opinions on platforms like Glassdoor, which can directly impact recruitment. Because of the anonymity, they speak plainly and honestly which can bring about uncomfortable truths.

You can’t stop people from talking. They’re going to find a place to say what they want to say, and technology now enables this more than ever. However, you can change what they say about their experience of work. Work is often the hardest place to talk about work. Good leaders encourage employees to overcome their instinct to keep their heads down and stay quiet.

Giving Your Employees a Voice

Here are a few tips on how to create an environment where people feel free to share their ideas and thoughts about work — before it goes viral online.

Psychological Safety

A positive work culture permeates an entire organization — from the top floor to the shop floor. Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson, in her work with Google, coined the phrase “psychological safety,” which she defined as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” In other words, a safe space for people to speak freely.

What this is not is a carte blanche anything-goes setting. There is still an important need to respect others, take responsibility and be accountable. Reaching a point of safety for employees is a varied process that takes time. Many employees have had experiences where they have been punished or embarrassed for sharing how they really feel, so it’s natural that it takes time for a relationship of trust to be built that makes them feel safe.

Be patient. If you are genuine in your approach, they will trust you and open up eventually.

Speaking at the Team Level

In practice, where the speaking needs to happen is at the team level. Most of people’s day to day experience of work is with the people they work the most closely with — the team. And because the team is made up of faces and people they know, this is where employees need to express themselves and overcome silence the most.

In this light, it’s incredibly important to establish a communication norm or a normal level of openness that is socially acceptable within the workplace. At Amazon, for example, the communication norm is for employees to challenge each other’s ideas to drive innovation. In this setting, speaking up is accepted and has positive outcomes. However, that kind of confrontation may not be acceptable in more hierarchical cultures where speaking directly may not be viewed positively.

As a starting point, have regular discussions about how well people are working together in addition to what people are working on. A small shift in topic will reap huge dividends.

Leaders Need to Learn to Use Silence

Ironically enough, one of the best ways for leaders to help their teams overcome silence is to use silence. The next time you hold a team meeting, notice how often you fill the silence with your own stories and anecdotes. We tend to be uncomfortable with silence and fill it with our noise, which leaves little room for others.

To overcome this, try the following:

  1. Ask open-ended questions
  2. Leave space for people to answer

The second step is the most crucial. That space can get long and uncomfortable (even five seconds can feel like an eternity!), but the discomfort is what helps draw out answers from the team.

"Do any of our quieter members have anything to add?"

Some people are genuinely comfortable in silence and team leaders need to make sure that the quiet ones are heard as well. A little nudge can help them speak up, and they often have a different viewpoint than more extraverted team members. Sometimes a nudge won’t work. If you feel that a team member is holding something back, it might be prudent to seek them out and see if everything is ok. You might even risk saying, “I might be wrong, but I had a feeling that you might have something to say.”

Again, creating that communication norm and a place of psychological safety where the quiet members feel safe to speak up is critically important. Remember, employee voice is not just for extraverts, but for the introverts as well.

Giving your employees a voice doesn’t mean having to give in to all their demands, but rather it opens up a dialogue with them — an open place of discussion. The risk of losing great ideas to silence, and the chance of explaining why things aren’t what they always seem is very real.

Friday Pulse is a platform that gives employees a voice every week by asking them to rate their experience of work as well as share ideas about how to improve their work experience.