When Employees Speak Up, Companies Win

Why and how you should encourage employees to speak out about issues beyond their own jobs.

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Business headlines suggest that employees are speaking up more than ever. Activist employees are calling out their companies over where and with whom they do business, burned-out employees are asking for more and more unique work-life accommodations, and concerned employees are raising questions about hiring practices and promotion decisions in light of institutional biases. Often, these instances of speaking up — called employee voice behaviors — result in an embarrassingly public airing of organizational issues.

Yet our research reveals that the headlines are not an accurate reflection of the current state of employee voice. We asked 6,000 employees of a Microsoft business unit to tell us how often they spoke up to their managers. In addition, we asked how many of 15 topics they spoke up about, such as their immediate job assignments, the culture of their teams, how employees are treated across the organization, the strategy of the company, and the work-life balance alternatives available to them. We found that relatively few employees consistently share their thoughts and opinions about a multitude of work issues with their managers: Just 13.6% of the surveyed employees said that they speak up on more than 10 of the topics. Slightly more are silent: In fact, 17.5% said they do not speak up at all. The largest group of employees — 47.1% — said they speak up on five or fewer topics, typically on issues related to their jobs.

If we assume that these findings reflect similar tendencies in other organizations, leaders should be concerned, because employee voice is not a voice of complaint or protest per se. It encompasses the willingness of employees to speak up about opportunities for improvement. These efforts are not a prescribed part of employees’ jobs; they are a voluntary communication of constructive ideas to leaders that enable learning and effective change in work groups of all sizes, from teams to entire organizations. Yet these efforts to tell the truth can involve confronting leaders, who can feel challenged or even threatened, especially when the proposed changes involve things that leaders have helped create or for which they are responsible.1

More and more, companies are seeking to expand efforts to listen to their employees by inviting them to share their opinions and ideas in areas that are outside of their day-to-day tasks.

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References

1. E.R. Burris, “The Risks and Rewards of Speaking Up: Managerial Responses to Employee Voice,” Academy of Management Journal 55, no. 4 (August 2012): 851-875.

2. E.R Burris, J.R. Detert, and A.C. Romney, “Speaking Up vs. Being Heard: The Disagreement Around and Outcomes of Employee Voice,” Organization Science 24, no. 1 (January-February 2013): 22-38; C.F. Lam and D.M. Mayer, “When Do Employees Speak Up for Their Customers? A Model of Voice in a Customer Service Context,” Personnel Psychology 67, no. 3 (autumn 2014): 637-666; E.J. McClean, E.R. Burris, and J.R. Detert, “When Does Voice Lead to Exit? It Depends on Leadership,” Academy of Management Journal 56, no. 2 (April 2013): 525-538; and J.R. Detert, E.R. Burris, D.A. Harrison, et al., “First Voice Flows to and Around Leaders: Understanding When Units Are Helped or Hurt by Employee Voice,” Administrative Science Quarterly 58, no. 4 (November 2013): 624-668.

3. J.A. LePine and L. Van Dyne, “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, no. 2 (April 2001): 326-336.

4. J.R. Detert and E.R. Burris, “Leadership Behavior and Employee Voice: Is the Door Really Open?” Academy of Management Journal 50, no. 4 (August 2007): 869-884.

5. E.W. Morrison, S.L. Wheeler-Smith, and D. Kamdar, “Speaking Up in Groups: A Cross-Level Study of Group Voice Climate and Voice,” Journal of Applied Psychology 96, no. 1 (January 2011): 183-191.

6. V. Venkataramani and S. Tangirala, “When and Why Do Central Employees Speak Up? An Examination of Mediating and Moderating Variables,” Journal of Applied Psychology 95, no. 3 (May 2010): 582-591.

7. R. McKnight, J. Doele, and K. Christine, “One Prudential Exchange — The Insurance Giant’s Business Literacy and Alignment Platform,” Human Resource Management 40, no. 3 (autumn 2001): 241-247.

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