Silence is Golden, but Employee Voice is Worth More

What happens when your employees are silent

January 31, 2020 4 mins read

Imagine a company where everyone silently got on with their work. For anyone that has had to deal with noisy co-workers, this might look ideal. Productivity! No distractions! Everyone focusing on their jobs! 

But in the silence, what isn’t being said? 

There are a multitude of business risks when people don’t feel able to speak up, and not just the risk that problems are being buried or mistakes repeated. There is also the risk of lost opportunities — the chance to share great ideas, for collaboration, and opportunities for employees to express themselves and learn from one another. 

A quiet workplace may seem ideal from a productivity front, but the effect of silence can create an environment where it is better to be “safe than sorry.” Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School calls this the “gravitational pull of silence”. People opt to stay quiet, even in teams where managers aren’t overbearing. Their inhibitions still get in the way, and they would rather keep quiet than speak up — hence the name.

Why your employees need to speak up

Ensuring that employees have the opportunity to raise concerns has long been championed as a fundamental right for workers. Indeed, the trade union movement was born as a way of representing workers’ viewpoints in an era when there was far less protection against unfair and dangerous labour practices. 

Moreover, the idea that it is a fundamental right of workers to be able to raise concerns has recently been included in the UK Corporate Governance Code (July 2018) with the onus on a company’s board to ensure this right. The code states as part of its five major principles the following:

The board should ensure that the workforce policies and practices are consistent with the company’s values and support its long-term sustainable success. The workforce should be able to raise any concerns. 

While this is a good foundation for companies to build upon, it turns employee voice into a “compliance” issue rather than an opportunity for business improvement. This is, unfortunately, the case for many companies despite organizations like the CIPD advocating for a more inspiring and generalised approach. They and others refer to this as employee voice, which they define as: 

Employee voice is the means by which people communicate their views to their employer. It’s the main way employees can influence matters that affect them at work. For employers, effective voice contributes toward innovation, productivity and organizational improvement. For employees, it often results in increased job satisfaction, greater influence and better opportunities for development.

The benefits of employee voice are quite plain to see — a possible win-win situation for all parties involved. In practice, to ensure that your employees have a real voice, your organization needs to do more than just give them opportunities to participate — it can’t just be a “tick-box” exercise. 

One of the top reasons people list for leaving a job is because they don’t feel heard or listened to. Yet, how could they feel heard if the only time they get to speak up is in a yearly performance feedback conversation or an engagement survey?  Only 11% of employers survey their employees more than once a year, whereas 25%of employers only survey them every other year or less frequently. Perhaps, what is most damning is how 80% of all employees who have completed a survey felt like it made no difference to their working life. 

How employers can encourage employee voice

One of the reasons employers are scared of asking employees about their opinions and concerns is that it will open up a Pandora’s box of negativity. In most cases, this fear is far from reality — with employees just as likely to be sitting on bright, creative ideas as bad news or dissent. Of course, even if there is bad news it is much better to address it in a timely and appropriate way or else it festers and grows in strength. So how do you create an atmosphere that people feel free to share their ideas and thoughts about work? 

Create a “psychologically safe” space

A positive and inclusive work culture permeates through an organization — from the top floor to the shop floor. In Amy Edmondson’s work with Google, they coined the phrase “psychological safety” which is defined as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes”. 

It is important to recognize that psychological safety doesn’t mean anything goes. There still needs to be respect for one another, responsibility and accountability. 

Start at the team level

It all starts at the team level. Most of people’s day-to-day experience of work is with the people they work most closely with. This is where employees need to express themselves and overcome their inherent silence. Overcoming the gravitational pull of silence requires leadership. Team leaders can’t demand people to speak, but they can lead by example. This means sharing your own stories, being open about your own mistakes and how you learnt from them. 

What is also important is setting a communication norm or precedent for teams to have a dialogue with leadership. Structuring regular time for open discussions about “how” people are working together rather than “what” they are working on encourages more open conversations.

Learn to use silence to your advantage

Ironically enough, one way to overcome silence is to use silence. If you, as a leader, fill all the time with your own stories, then there will be no space for others to speak. Instead, ask open-ended questions and leave space for people to answer. Then, sit back and wait and enjoy the discomfort it brings to everyone in the room (even five seconds of silence can feel like an eternity). Be brave and dare to leave them in silence long enough for it to be uncomfortable. 

What this exercise does is cue your team that you are willing to let them speak for themselves. This exercise can also be used to draw in the quieter members of the group in a supportive way. I sometimes say, “Do any of the quieter members have something to say?” This little nudge will encourage them — and they often bring a different perspective than the more vocal extraverted members do. 

However, some people are still not comfortable not to speak publicly, and that’s fine. If you feel that they might be holding something back, it’s also prudent to seek them out afterwards and ask them if everything is ok. You might even risk saying, “I might be wrong, but I had a feeling that you might have something to say”. 

By being quiet and letting your team speak you are creating an atmosphere where different perspectives are respected and welcomed. A strong team becomes stronger by embracing a diversity of opinions and finding ways of working that respect different work styles. 

Though silence may be golden, an employee’s voice is worth far more.

Listening to your employees’ voice is not just a question of compliance with corporate governance policies but is also a matter of business success.