Why your employees don’t speak up

Research: Half of workers don’t feel comfortable to express concerns - and it’s usually because they don’t think you’ll listen.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 20 May 2020

Effective strategy never emerges from an ivory tower. If a management team is disconnected from their frontline staff, they will lack the necessary knowledge to understand what’s feasible, what could go wrong or what could be better.

That’s why listening is so important - it opens you up to a diversity of perspectives that can make the organisation more innovative and more resilient. It also matters for wellbeing: staff who feel psychologically safe enough to voice their concerns, and who feel listened to, are more likely to be satisfied in their roles.  

But new research suggests that only half of workers feel satisfied that they can speak up at work.

A study from the Centre for People Work and Organisational Practice at Nottingham Business School and the CIPD wanted to understand "employee voice" within organisations. 

In the first phase, 2,370 workers from various public and private sector organisations answered a survey to determine the extent to which they felt they had a meaningful voice at work. The second phase involved case studies of specific employers. 

The key findings were that only 50 per cent of workers felt they could speak up, with a higher proportion of employees in smaller firms saying they could than in those with 250 staff or more.

Those working in more operational roles like manufacturing and construction were also less likely to voice concerns compared to office-based staff, due in part to the relative prevalence of command-and-control management structures, but also because they were generally less likely to have access to hi-tech based communication channels with which to voice them. 

Divides including education, language and gender can also cause significant barriers, says Nottingham Business School’s Daniel King who co-authored the study. “Many people in operational workplaces don’t have English as their first language. How do they receive key information and feedback?”

Fundamentally,the research shows that the level of employee voice is intrinsically linked to the quality of a firm’s managers. Staff are more likely to feel listened to when management teams possess higher levels of "ethical leadership", authenticity and understanding of how their actions affect employee confidence. 

One-to-one conversations with managers were found to be the main “voice channel” for staff. 

The researchers recommend that in order to improve the situation, leaders need to create “a climate of flexibility and innovation”, including processes that set aside time for discussion and collaboration across the business. Managing upwards, from line managers through to senior management, can also help. 

The team plans further research into potential solutions. Read the full study here. 

Image credit: Bogdan Dreava / EyeEm via Getty Images.

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