February 14, 2019

Your Employees Should Feel Comfortable Speaking Up

 |  By: Mike Opperman

Do your employees voice their opinions? Do they share their thoughts and ideas, or express what they are thinking? If not, your corporate culture may need an overhaul.

There are two pathways that lead better communication with employees, according to Hemant Kakkar, a PhD candidate at the London Business School and Subra Tangirala, professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland. The first involves hiring people who are naturally extroverted. The second centers on creating an environment that is conducive to open communication.

The two researchers studied which perspective mattered more. If personality was the primary predictor of speaking up, the situation shouldn’t matter. By contrast, if the situation or environment was the primary driver of open communication, then employee personalities should be less important. 

Their results were published online in the Harvard Business Review.

Their survey collected data on nearly 300 employees of a manufacturing plant in Malaysia. Questions determined how inherently likely each employee was to speaking up. They were also asked if speaking up is expected as part of their everyday work, and whether it is encouraged and rewarded or punished. 

Results of the surveys showed that both personality and environment had a significant effect on an employee’s tendency to speak up with ideas or concerns. 

“Employees with a high approach orientation, who tend to seek opportunities and take more risks, spoke up more often with ideas than those with a lower approach orientation,” according to the researchers. “And employees who believed they were expected to suggest ideas spoke up more than those who didn’t feel it was part of their job.”

Yet even with employees who were more inclined to voice their opinions, the research found strong environmental norms that could override the influence of personality on an employee’s willingness to speak up. If someone was more inclined to voice their opinion, they were less likely to speak up with concerns when they thought it was discouraged or punished.

Conversely, even if someone was more reserved about voicing their opinion at work, they spoke up when they thought it was strongly expected of them at work. For these reasons, the research team suggests that creating an environment that promotes open communication is more important than hiring people who are naturally more extroverted. 

“If you want employees to speak up, the work environment and the team’s social norms matter,” Kakkar and Tangirala suggest. “Even people wo are most inclined to raise ideas and suggestions may not do so if they fear being put down or penalized.” On the other hand, encouraging and rewarding speaking up can help more people feel free to openly communicate, even if their personality makes them more risk averse.

The research also identified that environment could influence how employees speak up. In the study, employees voiced their opinions in two different ways: by identifying areas for improvement at work, and by diagnosing potential treats to the organization and calling out undesirable behaviors that might compromise safety. Researchers found that when the work environment encouraged detection of potential threats or problems, workers spoke out more on safety violations or protocol breaches. But when the environment encouraged improvements and innovation, employees more often spoke up with novel ideas for redesigning work process. 

Researchers conclude that if you want your employees to be more vocal and contribute ideas and opinions, you should actively encourage this behavior and reward those who do it.