I recently spoke with a friend about an issue that his organization was facing that was causing him significant frustration. They had experienced an equipment failure that caused significant downtime for their production line. In response, the leadership team demanded that all the similar parts on the line be replaced, regardless of condition.
My friend indicated that this particular part was one that could easily be inspected for wear and only be replaced if necessary. They did not typically fail without warning. If all the parts had been inspected instead of replaced, the organization could have saved the cost of the parts and weeks of work.
Unfortunately, the decision-makers were not aware of this possibility. None of the mechanics who knew the equipment shared this information. They knew it was a costly decision, but no one spoke up, not even my friend. Why?
It wasn’t that the mechanics didn’t care, or that they wanted the company to lose money. They definitely didn’t want to do all that extra work. What my friend described to me was an environment that did not encourage employees to speak up. Best to just keep your head down and do what you’re told.
Leaders of his organization had created a culture that did not value or encourage employees who get involved.
Unfortunately, this situation is common, especially in American organizations. Even when leaders recognize the significant benefits that can result from employee ideas, we are not very good at creating an environment that supports and encourages these behaviors.
As I discussed last week, one way this is apparent is in the failure to measure the right behaviors for employee engagement. Even when the correct measures are used, the results are not pretty.
In their book, Ideas are Free, Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder share some stats comparing American and Japanese companies from 1989. In their study, the ability of the Japanese companies to leverage employee ideas far outstripped that of the Americans. The Japanese companies averaged 37.4 ideas per employee, with a participation rate of 77.6%. The American companies, however, had a paltry 0.12 ideas per employee and a participation rate of only 9.0%.
Something was clearly different between these two groups.
Two Key Reasons for Employee Silence
Last year, I had the opportunity to speak with Ethan Burris, an Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, about why employees don’t speak up and share ideas. He has been researching the topic of employee “voice” for some time and has boiled down the cause to two main factors: fear and futility.
I will share my thoughts on these two factors below, but I highly recommend reading Ethan’s Harvard Business Review article, co-written with James Detert, for a more thorough explanation.
Employees don’t speak up for fear of negative consequences. These negative consequences can take many forms and may be real or perceived. The specific fears involved are likely different for every individual.
One obvious fear that individuals may face is the fear of retaliation. The general idea is that by speaking up, I could anger my boss, resulting in a negative response towards me. Often, this is due to leaders who are insecure and can’t handle negative feedback or admit they might be wrong. Employees may be afraid of damaging a working relationship, poor performance reviews, or even firing.
Fear of negative consequences could also be much more subtle. For some employees, the fear that keeps them from speaking up could be as simple as anxiety about stretching out of their comfort zone. Anytime an employee shares an idea, they are opening themselves up for criticism. What if their idea is stupid? What if others resent them for speaking up? It is much safer to just keep quiet and not rock the boat.
The friend that did not speak up about the maintenance issue is one example of how this situation could play out. Another example was shared by a friend who has a talent for identifying areas in which her team could improve. She is a deep thinker who challenges the status quo and desires improved performance from her team. Unfortunately, her supervisor sent the message that ideas for improvement were viewed as an inconvenience, rather than a welcome contribution. To avoid being labeled as a complainer or a nuisance, she began to withhold her ideas and observations, much to the detriment of the team.
Even more often, employees withhold ideas due to a sense of futility. They do not think their ideas will make a difference. If no one is going to listen and nothing will ever change, why bother speaking up?
This thought pattern is a form of learned helplessness that is all too common in organizations today. Learned helplessness is a mental state in which an individual is unable or unwilling to take the necessary steps to improve their situation because they perceive that it is out of their control.
This mental state occurs in employees when their experiences and the organizational culture send the message that their efforts do not matter. This message is often sent by leaders in subtle, even unintentional ways.
One way in which leaders can discourage the sharing of ideas is by relying on an overly hierarchical structure in which all orders are shared in a top-down fashion. If employees must seek approval for all their ideas, it implies that their ideas are not good enough or that their managers have all the answers. Body language and the location and circumstances of discussions can also increase the power gap between employee and boss, further reducing the perceived value of employee suggestions.
Other experiences that could reduce employee participation could be if employees have no clear mechanism for submitting suggestions or they have never been asked for their ideas. In other cases, maybe they have had a bad experience with a suggestion box that failed. A lack of resources to implement employee suggestions could also be a cultural condition that prevents employees from speaking up.
Creating an Encouraging Environment
Robinson and Schroeder describe three ways in which leaders can encourage the sharing of ideas within their organizations.
A supervisor has three important roles to play in managing ideas:
1. To create an environment that encourages ideas;
2. To help employees develop their knowledge and improve their problem solving skills, in order to increase the quality and impact of their ideas; and
3. To champion ideas and look for possible larger implications in them.
-from Ideas are Free
Creating an encouraging environment is the most difficult of these three roles because there are so many factors to consider. Some ideas to consider for your team include creating clear, consistent opportunities for your team to share ideas and recognizing employees who speak up, even when the ideas are not perfect.
Another subtle behavior that can encourage ideas is to be forgiving when employees gripe. Not everyone knows how to express ideas in a positive manner. If you focus on the ideas behind the griping, you can provide coaching on how to express them.
It is also important to focus on the non-verbal cues that discourage employee ideas. Watch your body language. Try to create a relaxed environment to discuss ideas. Get out of your comfort zone and into your team’s. They are much more likely to speak openly in their work area than they are in your office. You may even want to consider finding creative ways to remove titles or ranks from the equation.
With focused attention and intentional effort you can create an encouraging environment for your team. This will lead to an increase in ideas, improving outcomes for your organization.
What about you? What has encouraged you to share ideas? What keeps you from speaking up? Let me know in the comments.