If your staff aren’t speaking up it could be your culture

When your employees speak up, your organisation benefits! If your employees feel comfortable sharing their opinions and concerns or making suggestions, your company then becomes better at dealing with potential threats and opportunities. However, the reality is that very often, employees don’t voice their concerns, ideas or opinions.

In general, there are two viewpoints on why this is the case. One of these is the personality perspective, this suggests that employees lack the inclination to speak out about important issues. This may be because they are too shy to skillfully express their points of view to their team. This perspective prompts solutions such as hiring new employees who have more proactive tendencies and who are more likely to voice their views.

The second point of view is situational perspective, which argues that employees don’t speak up because they feel that their work environment is not favourable for it. They may be afraid that they will experience a significant social cost for saying something that questions their bosses. As a result of this perspective, solutions which concentrate on how managers can establish the right social norms which will encourage employees to voice their opinions and worries without fear of punishment.

Kakkar and Tangirala wanted to find out which one matters the most and state that if personality is the main predictor of speaking up, then the situational factors should not really matter. This means that employees who are naturally inclined to speak up will be the ones that do so the most. Alternatively, if the environment is the main driver, then personality should not really be important. Employees would voice their opinions no matter their personalities, when the work environment encourages it.

Kakkar and Tangirala surveyed almost 300 employees and their supervisors for their research. They asked these employees “how likely they were inherently disposed to seeking out opportunities in their environment” This was how they assessed whether or not the employees had a personality predisposed to speaking up. They also asked the employees if voicing their opinions is expected as part of their day to day work, as well as whether it is rewarded or punished. This was how they assessed the situational norms related to their work environment. Researchers had each employee rate their approach orientation and the expectations in their job. When the data was analysed, they found that both environment and personality had a huge effect on employee’s inclination to voice their concerns or opinions. Employees who had a high approach orientation spoke up more frequently than those with a lower approach orientation. Also, employees who thought that they were expected to put forward ideas voiced their opinions more than those who didn’t feel as though it was part of their job.

As a result of their research, Kakker and Tangirala found that strong environmental norms could actually override the power personality had on the employees’ willingness to speak up. Even if an employee had a low approach orientation, they voiced their opinions and concerns when they thought it was expected of them at work. They also found that if an employee had a high approach orientation they would be less likely to speak up if they thought they would be punished as a result or if it was discouraged. The results of the research supported the situational perspective better than the personality.

The research also found that the environment could actually influence how employees voiced their opinions. They spoke up in two different ways, firstly by recognising areas for improvement and second by finding potential threats and calling out poor behaviours which could but safety or operations at risk. Kakker and Tangirala found that when the norms encouraged the identification of possible threats or issues, employees voiced their concerns more in relation issues relating to safety violations etc. However, when norms encouraged innovation, employees spoke up more often with ideas for redesigning work processes for example. This suggests that work norms can encourage all employees to speak up more as well as focus on specific issues which are facing the organisation.

If a manager is working in situations where innovation is important it would be beneficial to create an environment where developing new ideas is encouraged. On the other hand, if they are in a situation where reliability is more important, then creating an environment where speaking up about potential threats would be more beneficial.

From this research we can see that social norms matter if you want to get your employees to speak up and contribute to ideas more. Even employees who are naturally inclined to share their thoughts and ideas will hold back if they fear being put down or penalised. On the other hand, encouraging employees to speak up and rewarding them for doing so will help more employees be comfortable with speaking up and they will do so more often. This will be much more beneficial for your organisation.

Van Dyne, et al (2003) Conceptualising Employee Silence and Employee Voice as Multidimensional Constructs. Journal of Management Studies 

LePine, J. A., & Van Dyne, L. (2001). Voice and cooperative behavior as contrasting forms of contextual performance: Evidence of differential relationships with Big Five personality characteristics and cognitive ability. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(2), 326-336.

Tangirala, S., Kamdar, D., Venkataramani, V., & Parke, M. R. (2013). Doing right versus getting ahead: The effects of duty and achievement orientations on employees’ voice. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(6), 1040-1050.

Kakkar & Tangirala. (2018). If Your Employees Aren’t Speaking Up, Blame Company Culture [online] https://hbr.org/2018/11/if-your-employees-arent-speaking-up-blame-company-culture

Nembhard, M. Edmonson, A. (2006) Making it safe: the effects of leader inclusiveness and professional status on psychological safety and improvement efforts in health care teams. Journal of Organizational Behavior. 27(7)

Kakkar, H., Tangirala, S., Srivastava, N. K., & Kamdar, D. (2016). The dispositional antecedents of promotive and prohibitive voice. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(9), 1342-1351.

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