Here’s how to empower employees to speak up
Consider this: Suppose you are in a position where you identify a major issue in your organization, one that could have disastrous repercussions on the business. You may have ideas that could potentially safeguard the company.
Instead of sharing those ideas, you begin to question yourself saying things like: Do I really want to share this idea? What if they hate it? Will voicing my thoughts affect my job security?
You are not alone. Studies show that employees hesitate to speak up and might be hardwired to stay silent. There are several ways to remedy employee inability or reluctance to speak up.
Encourage your people to speak!
When issues arise, the declared leader of a given team, division, or the whole organization is expected to solve them. Other employees who have innate leadership qualities and potentially transformative ideas tend to refrain from speaking up preferring to stick to their ‘follower’ role purely because of the existing context and structural hierarchy. They equate speaking up with destructive risk taking and their fear of speaking up promotes their adoption of the idea that whatever issue is in fact ‘someone else’s problem’, usually the leader’s.
The situation described above is summed up by a sociopsychological term known as ‘diffusion of responsibility’. It is a phenomenon in which individuals in a group setting are less likely to take responsibility and act than if they were alone which creates the bystander effect. A situation where people’s responses to certain events are dependent on the presence of others. The bystander will not intervene because he/she knows that someone else will and as a result feel less responsible.
If your company’s policies state or even imply that violating employees will be fired without the possibility of having a more lenient measure, then employees are probably dissuaded from sharing their thoughts or voicing any concerns.
A ‘Zero Tolerance Policy’ is not always the best policy to follow. You heard it right. Of course, policies should be strong worded and unforgiving when it comes to illegal behavior or behavior that jeopardizes the company. But it is too intolerant, employees will avoid the trouble of speaking up altogether.
Deter and dissuade a culture of negativity and retaliation
Employees are less likely to come forward if they have witnessed situations where colleagues are rebuked or experienced retaliation for voicing an opinion or expressing a concern.
Employers ought to promote a culture of openness and safeguard employee expression of opinion. This could be in the form of checking in with employees occasionally, to ask about their state of mind and whether there are situations that have been bothering them. This is especially relevant in the age of COVID19 and working from home.
Reward speaking up
Alan Mullaly, former Ford CEO, is an excellent example of a leader who was successful in shifting company culture for the better.
Considering the difficult challenges, the firm was facing internally and externally ten years ago, Alan devised a system to monitor operational performance. It was centered around obtaining regular feedback from his leaders. He asked executives to deliver brief status updates on their top 4-5 priorities regularly. To better enable him to prioritize problem solving initiatives and categorize their feedback, he asked them to label their feedback using a simple color-coded red-yellow-green indicator to show whether their plans and initiatives were on track or not. Green indicated things were going as planned. Yellow indicated there were challenges and obstacles to achieving their plans, though there were tools and measures at their disposal to get things back on track. Red indicated that their plans were off track and needed urgent attention. To his surprise, these executives responded that everything was ok, and all their priorities were in the green zone although the company was about to lose $17 Billion!
When Alan asked the executives if their priority the year before was to lose that amount, then they would be in the green. Eventually, one of these executives stood up and confessed that he is in the red. Alan thanked the executive for his honesty and applauded him. He praised him for telling the truth and having the courage to admit that he has some problems.
Alan declared to his leaders: “I am Alan Mullaly. I am the CEO of Ford. I know very little about making and selling cars. I know a lot less than you guys do about making and selling cars. And it is OK!”
In the next team meeting, Alan received many more reports reflecting yellow and red statuses. Once he had clear and unfiltered data, he started to make out what the areas of weakness are and how to address them. Alan’s approach promoted a culture of speaking up and recognized those who did. Gaining his people’s trust was a game changer.
Speaking up is good for everyone
Employees and organizations find themselves in a situation of ambiguity and at times confusion because of the pandemic. There is significant uncertainty about the norms that will be adopted in the future (for example whether working from home is the new norm or otherwise). It is especially important to understand your employees’ personalities, weaknesses, and strengths to better manage operational outcomes. This requires encouraging your employees to speak up.