Want To Make The Growing Voice At Your Workplace Count? Build A Speak-up Culture

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak,
Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” – Winston Churchill

Do you know what makes the Second World War so fascinating? Its legacy in the form of reconfiguration of responsibilities (of leaders) and global power, at a level no other war probably has achieved.

Lessons to draw, indeed!

Fast forward to the Fall of 2021.

In December, a wave of unionization takes over Starbucks and then spreads fast. Soon union movements at Amazon, Apple, Google gain momentum. Social movements too pick up as diversity takes the center stage.

Results of a survey by Gallup, published in Gallup News on August 30, 2022, show that 71% of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest since 1965.

So, why the churn? Who are these people? What is feeding the sentiment?

These are the workers across sectors, from services to technology. Some of them are young, maybe fresh out of college or in college doing part-time jobs, while some are educated. Whatever the demographic, the rising trend indicates one common thread running through them all-the need to be heard, to be valued.

Training Industry cites an interesting survey in one of its articles. The research, conducted last year by Safety Culture and You Gov, assessed the experience of frontline workers in the US, the UK and Australia. Majority of the workers covered in the survey (67%) said that either they were never, or rarely, or only sometimes listened to on topics that mattered to them the most. Between 20% to 50% of the workers in these countries feared a potential backlash in terms of job loss when reporting COVID-19 adherence issues, while over 30% overall cited that they saw no point in giving feedback as they believed that nothing would be done.

Whatever the issue, whether underpaid or overworked or sexually harassed or discriminated against, as it snowballs into a major challenge, companies and leadership need to re-evaluate their approach. There search above shows that training and being heard are the two key factors for retaining employees and attracting talent.

Psychology at play

It all boils down to psychology. Being heard, or having the liberty to express, is tantamount to feeling understood and recognized socially. On the other hand, listening to someone involves getting out of one’s own head and making an active and conscious effort to absorb a different opinion, or ideas, thoughts, etc.

To put it succinctly, we are talking about effective two-way communication.

Why is being heard important?

Because it gives us psychological safety. Amy Edmonson, professor of Psychology at Harvard (as quoted in Higher Echelon, an organization engaged in developing leaders and offering solutions to optimize operational performance), defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

In a workplace, therefore, a psychologically safe environment is imperative to create a culture of comfort where employees feel free to express themselves, be it their vulnerability. It is equally important to facilitate risk-taking.

In the absence of psychological safety, there is hesitation in discussing new ideas, giving honest feedback, and a tendency to keep our strengths to ourselves. The fear of rejection, or embarrassment resulting from sharing awkward feedback, or an unhealthy backlash in the form of veiled passive-aggressive behavior or microaggression, prevents employees from taking initiative.

Being heard also fosters creativity.

Top psychologists opine that the brain navigates freely, especially through discomfort, when the fear of what others think is eliminated. This strengthens the drive for innovation at both personal and organizational levels.

Among other things, being able to communicate freely without the anxiety of being judged or discriminated against creates a sense of well-being at workplace. It boosts productivity, employee engagement, and contributes to maximizing performance.

Moreover, employees are at the frontline of developments. Factoring in the issues they raise could be pertinent to effective decision-making at managerial levels. 

Where do leaders come into play?

Simple responses — it is okay to try out new things; go ahead and express yourself; we value initiative and effort more; you will not be chastised for expressing your opinions — are enough to instill confidence.

That is what it should sound like from a leader. Assuring thus will help in creating a growth mindset and enable employees to open up. Recognizing an initiative, even when it may not have been a success, is highly effective in fostering creativity and innovativeness in employees.

Listening to your employees is among the core principles in running a business, according to Josh Bersin, thought leader in the global talent market, author, and educator. They are the most “vested stakeholders”. Customers will change suppliers, investors may sell their stock, but employees invest their life in your company – they put in their family time and personal energy. So, when they are facing challenges or have good ideas, leaders must listen.

And as a corollary to this, build an environment where speaking up is encouraged—by one and all. This is among the most important responsibilities of a leader.

What must a leader do to build a speak-up culture at workplace?

Build a safe place to work: Okay, so you’ve said clearly, and so has every reporting manager in the organization, that employees should speak up freely without any fear of retaliation.

Does this suffice? Perhaps not.

You need to establish yourself as a leader who is both trusting and trustworthy. This begins with opening up to people and helping them open up to you. Group activities focusing on reflection and introspection, where people share their views freely, give a good start. Don’t make this employee-centric only. You, as a leader, make sure to participate.

Engage more frequently with your employees to assess or re-work protocols regarding engagement. If there is a need to revisit some, go ahead and do that in consultation with your team for greater involvement and confidence building.

Be unafraid to show your human side. Discuss your challenges, how you faced them, or came out, or what are the things you do to keep yourself motivated. Share, within limitations of course, some of your vulnerabilities, your triggers, and how you work on that. Nothing resonates better than the humane aspect. Project it with honesty and sincerity.

And while you engage, do not encourage or indulge in gossip. Make it clear that gossip among employees, especially when it crosses boundaries, will not be tolerated.

Strategize around safety – from the wrong attitude, such as microaggression or bullying or passive-aggressive behavior, and from the physical safety perspective. Educate yourself, the management team, and all senior executives on the desired aspects of safety. Be aware of the workplace hazards.

Recognize people for right or impactful suggestions, especially when they are tendered anonymously. In several organizations, people are urged to make use of the suggestion box, but suggestions often lie unattended, ignored.

Recognizing an anonymous suggestion will go a long way in building confidence in people to not just come up, but eventually give up anonymity.

In an ideal scenario, anonymity should not be taken as recourse to. If, as a leader, you have been able to drive fear out from the minds of the people, you have truly empowered them.

However, real politik at workplace necessitates both anonymity and confidentiality be maintained. It is in the interest of both the organization and the individual to prevent irregularities and unwanted leakages of information.

A study by Ernst & Young in 2020, titled Global Business Integrity Survey, revealed that 39% of employees feared adverse impact on career development, 50% felt reporting would be pointless, doubting appropriate action would be taken, nearly 39% feared harm to personal safety, while 29% were under pressure from the management to not report.

So, since it is not possible to rectify the abnormalities completely, leaders must design/employ the right procedures and technological measures to provide employees with a secure communication channel. This could include following proper protocols for receiving information, especially of the confidential type; for the safety of attachments (if the information is highly critical); for the confidentiality of the sender. This, coupled with installing the latest technological solutions for security of applications and protection of access, goes a long way in delivering the desired results.

Go all out and motivate your employees, new and old, to communicate when something is amiss or not working. You could use town-halls, or emails, or any occasion you get to address a larger team to convey your message.

Time to time, take stock of the grievance redress machinery – are the committees working efficiently, what is the time taken in dispute resolution, are the workplace safety and health protocols and measures up-to-date, how are awareness programs working, is proper training being given to employees, are they encouraged to report unsafe conditions, are employees following norms for sobriety, etc.

Most organizations think simply installing systems and processes is sufficient. On the contrary, efficient tracking of how far the systems or technological solutions are working and delivering the desired results determines their efficacy.  

Work on yourself to lead by example: Nothing works better for a leader than leading by example. Begin by working on yourself. There are several ways of doing this:

  • When asking for questions or suggestions, stay away from giving inputs.
  • Respond to suggestions appreciatively. If you feel a suggestion may not work, refrain from outright dissing it.
  • One aspect of having the right conversation is to switch from reaction to response mode. We are tempted to react when the feedback is not what we were expecting. Practicing restraint in replying and not snubbing feedback, you are paving the way for a valuable input in the future.
  • Question your own mindset if you feel you are fixated on any line of thinking. Ask for suggestions, for help. Speak to people with different opinions as a mark of openness and flexibility of approach.
  • Encourage your management team and other practice leads to do the same with their reports, sensitize them through frequent interactions, and ask them to filter the message through to the most junior-level employees. If they see you are following a certain approach, they will automatically shift gears in the same direction.
  • When you listen, listen actively. Having another person speak while you are hooked onto your computer screen is both discourteous and shows a lack of empathy. Build eye-to-eye contact while talking, pay genuine attention; this will convey the message that you care.

Have the right conversations: As a leader, you need to ensure your entire management team is as much cued into building a culture of openness as much as you are. This will include detailed interactions over building the desired company culture, right from defining it to having the necessary policies in place: equal opportunity, workplace health, and safety, code of conduct, ethics, complaint-related, including against sexual harassment and discrimination, for building diversity and inclusion, etc.

To do this, you need to express your views clearly, and engage in frequent conversations with every member to understand their dispensation.

This will help in not just understanding the mindset they have, but also in addressing biases, if any. Accordingly, if you see any leader consciously or unconsciously pursuing a certain biased opinion, you will be able to identify it on time, before the damage is done, and take the steps necessary to address it.

For building a porous organization, communicate with all leaders or reporting managers along the line of supervision – as far as the size of your organization permits – to assess their opinion. Convey to them the significance of slowing down from time to time; urge them to not overemphasize on productivity. Encourage them to listen to what their reports have to say. The more they listen, the more they will be able to factor in the opinions or suggestions for an inclusive decision-making.

Build an effective training infrastructure: See that only the best-in-class and relevant training is provided to people across the organization, starting from the management itself.

Training and continuous learning focused on boosting pro-activeness and feedback play a key role in maintaining a high standard of reporting. Have a system to track whether employees are up-to-date with the latest critical information. Have your HR work on embedding refresher courses as part of L&D. Another tool that could be of help is microlearning platforms that are highly effective in delivering impactful training.

Work with your HR leadership to build programs that are incisive, structured around diversity inclusion, or team building, and deliver to the point. Start by being a participant yourself. Ensure that all members of the management team go through these sessions.

Most important, this should not be a one-time practice, something that happens at organizations usually. Ensure your team participates in these sessions or awareness programs regularly, of course, in line with their other responsibilities.

Have more than one channel of communication: These include surveys, communication via emails from the leadership from time to time, addressing the larger company during town-halls, meeting teams practice-wise say during team town-halls if the company is huge with sizeable verticals, having suggestion boxes where people can anonymously put their suggestions, holding post-feedback sessions with only the middle management where they can fearlessly express their opinions, conducting review sessions with the larger management team, etc.

Having multiple channels is one aspect. The other aspect is to ensure continuity of these channels throughout the year, such that they are not reduced to a one-time exercise.

Develop a strategy for employee journey management: Mere collation of data through surveys, or aggregation of information through meetings or such other sessions is not enough.

Data on employee experience needs to be acted upon. You need to draw actionable insights. And the sooner you implement the learnings, the better.

For this, as a leader, you need to streamline the process for collation and drawing insights. The trick, as well as the need of the hour, is to speed it up – and you can do this by employing the latest technological tools and platforms available, such as Culture Amp, Lattice Engagement, Blink, Qualtrics, Quantum Workplace, etc.

These platforms are designed to integrate smoothly with popular workplace systems. They include several complex surveys, sophisticated analytical tools to aptly assess the sentiment of employees at different stages of their journey in the organization.

As a leader, when you invest in such technologies or tools, you send out a very important message to your employees – that they matter to you, their opinion matters to you, and you are willing to go the extra mile to incorporate their feedback.

Install the right infrastructure for redress: Complaints can be of various types – against sexual harassment, against passive-aggressive behavior, against any kind of aggression, against discriminatory behavior, etc. What are you doing as a leader to address these?

Start by building the right infrastructure that rests on educating employees about what is acceptable and what is not. Keep updating the information and ensure your people, right from the top to the junior-most, are updated. Again, this has to be a periodic exercise, not a one-time effort.

Set up dedicated bodies or authorities to look into these issues. Hold meetings with them at certain intervals, or if your schedule does not permit, have other senior executives do this. But make sure you get the necessary updates.

Factor in representation at the board or management level to ensure all interests are equally represented and heard.

When you say zero tolerance, follow it impartially. If punitive action needs to be taken against a senior member against whom a complaint has been registered and verified, ensure it is taken.

Make sure that the committees or bodies are not bureaucratic, compromising the very purpose they were set up for. Staff them with efficient people and have the right processes, such as employee-friendly apps for on-time identification of issue and quick redress.

To conclude

Employees are the biggest asset of any organization. Surprisingly though, clientele is often rated the topmost. This is not to say that our customers should not be given the top priority, but as we do that, we should also be mindful to give the same significance to the very people on whose basis the organization functions – its workforce.

In fact, employees and customers tend to mirror each other’s sentiment. Happy employees will naturally translate into happy customers – simply because they are at the frontline and interact directly with the clients. If your employees are satisfied and aligned with the company’s broader vision, they will do their best to leave clients delighted.

All you need to do is listen to them and make them feel they are valued. Of course, this has to be done practically, for it is humanly not possible to satisfy every employee as per their individual expectations all the time.

Having the right tools and techniques to ensure their safety and assess their opinion is just the first step of the ladder. These should not be confused with having built the desired culture.

To do that, leaders need to work – on themselves, on their teams, on every aspect of the organization, however minimal its impact may appear. “Speak-up culture” for building an inclusive organization is the need of the hour. Only if your employees rally behind you, your organization will progress. 

Charting the course and setting sail is difficult – but if you know how to turn headwinds into tailwinds, it becomes easier.

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