Do all of your employees have a voice on your team? Bryn Savage addresses the concept of employee voice and maintains that employees who feel ignored are inclined to vote with their feet, while those who remain will have little incentive to contribute in meaningful ways that improve the organization or their own job satisfaction.
“Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.” – Andy Stanley.
Most of us are familiar with the story of the Titanic—a cautionary tale of miscommunication which led to the largest loss of life aboard a non-wartime vessel in modern times. Ignored iceberg warnings, messages from fellow ships left unsent to the bridge, and a pair of missing binoculars were some of the events in a series of miscommunications—or lack of communication—that contributed to the tragedy. Undeniably, this lack of communication was a core theme of the story. Had certain people spoken up at key times, or others listened, the outcome could have been very different.
When coaching leaders from multiple layers of the same organization, we often hear the same theme from different perspectives: “My employees don’t give me the right information” or “my leader doesn’t listen.” Obviously, these complaints point to a common theme: a breakdown in communication. In the workplace, this has its own consequences—employees who feel ignored are inclined to vote with their feet and those who remain have little incentive to contribute in ways that improve the organization or their own job satisfaction.
While these concerns appear to reflect two sides of the same coin, leaders are ultimately the ones responsible for creating an environment that encourages employees to step forward and be heard without fear of reprisal.
What is employee voice and why is it so important?
Employee voice, in its simplest terms, is how an employee at any level of an organization is able to speak up and be heard by their employer. Of course, that applies to opinions, ideas, and dissension alike. Too often, leaders are unaware of the ways that they could improve their employees’ ability to speak up—which has real consequences, as employee voice is a main contributor to employee engagement.
An environment where employee voice is valued and encouraged ultimately makes for a healthy, successful team and the myriad of benefits that arise from a well-connected workforce. These researched and well-documented benefits include both subjective rewards: job satisfaction, engagement, cohesiveness, loyalty, trust, and commitment on the part of employees; and measurable improvements for the organization itself: productivity, employee retention, innovation, and sharing of important information. On the flip side, there is evidence that a lack of voice or engagement can reduce employee satisfaction and increase both individual and team mistakes—all to the detriment of the organization.
How can a leader foster employee voice?
First and foremost, leaders must make it clear—both explicitly and implicitly—that they value feedback. This means giving an employee time when they come with a request. It means asking questions to better understand an employee’s point of view before responding with a suggestion or rationalization. It means asking for a potential solution to the problem brought forward by an employee, engaging them in the process of change. It also means working to protect your employee if negative emotions are sparked in you by their comments. When you appreciate and respect your employee—placing the well-being of your relationship with them at top priority—they will be much more likely to be engaged in the workplace.
Effective leaders facilitate channels for employee voice to occur. Many people find it stressful to contradict their bosses, so having clear guidelines about how and when their leader most welcomes feedback allows them to feel safe to express their views. Should issues be expressed verbally or in writing? In team meetings or one-on-ones? It can be helpful to create guidelines by considering (or asking) how your team members best respond to feedback, and how you prefer to receive it.
Correcting mistakes successfully is also key to building a trusting relationship that encourages employee voice. Most employees actively avoid making mistakes and don’t like messing up. So, when a mistake has been made, first pay attention to any distress or emotion that may be present for the employee—start by validating their experience and listening. When you connect with them on a personal level first, they will soon be able to move to correct the mistake. You can then work to understand the root cause of it—explore whether a gap in knowledge, external factors, or pure error is at fault, and support the person to make changes that will prevent future mistakes. When an employee feels that they can make a mistake and maintain your respect, they will be more willing to speak up even when they aren’t completely sure they are correct.
Finally, when you receive feedback as a leader, it is important to follow up at a later date to touch base and let the employee know that you take their ideas or concerns seriously.
Changes in today’s workplace impact how voices are heard
Developments in the workplace are adding complexity to the who and how of employee voice. Workplace trends such as the rise of the gig economy, workforce diversity, remote working, and other alternative work arrangements can make it more difficult for individuals to connect directly with their managers over critical issues. This should spur leaders to be more accommodating in how input is received (in-person, via email, over phone or video, etc.), and only heightens the importance of explicitly and clearly welcoming employee voice.
Employee voice: encouraging, structuring, and preserving trust
Fostering employee voice has been shown to yield clear benefits for individuals and the organizations they work with. Managing it is not easy since some degree of friction is bound to emerge. Ultimately, it’s up to the leaders to encourage individuals to come forward with their views—dissension included—using channels and guidelines that preserve respect, keep relationships intact, ensure comments are constructive, and protect the interests and feelings of those involved – both employees and their managers.
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Bryn Savage is a Trainer & Coach with the Circle & Square practice of Farber. Bryn focuses on corporate training, leadership coaching, and facilitation. She can be reached at 416.496.3417 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barry Pokroy is the founder and leader of Circle & Square, and a partner of Farber. As a Clinical Psychologist, he has in-depth knowledge and experience in adapting the insights of psychological theory to the demands of the corporate environment. Barry can be reached at 416.496.3079 and email@example.com.