Speaking Up & Speaking Out at Work

A few weeks ago, in my weekly e-zine Inspiring Workplaces,  I raised the issue of employees not speaking up in their workplaces. I was flooded with responses from subscribers adding to the list of reasons employees don’t feel comfortable speaking up to their senior managers. Some told stories of how they were fired for speaking up too often at work, while others had been demoted or reprimanded for speaking up. And one person shared how she was let go for not speaking up enoughat work!

The range of stories and the overwhelming response made it clear that this is a sensitive and important topic for many employees in many workplaces, and one that speaks to so many workplace culture values, such as trust and respect.

The issue of speaking up at work has been positively correlated to future financial success in businesses, likely because it affects everything from employee morale to innovation.

I’ve included a list of some extremely helpful ideas and tips from readers on how to encourage employees to speak up at work, but first here is a list of just some of the reasons employees sent in describing why they don’t speak up to senior managers at work:

What Prevents Employees From Speaking Up at Work

  • They are never asked, so they just assume their voice is not welcome.
  • There’s no trust in our workplace, so we live by the mantra, “If you’ve got a great idea, keep it to yourself!”
  • There’s no system in place that allows ideas to be moved up the chain or for ideas to be responded to.
  • There is no consideration for shy and/or introverted employees that aren’t encouraged to speak up in ways that are comfortable to them.
  • Senior managers are overly critical or judgemental when ideas are brought forward, too often dismissing them out of hand without any consideration.
  • Employees too often get a “lecture” as to why they are completely wrong whenever they bring up an opposing opinion.
  • Employees have been cited for insubordination for simply speaking up in the past.
  • Managers are overly sensitive and they take suggestions as a direct criticism of their leadership.
  • People get conditioned to play it safe and never raise their voice after seeing how others are treated.
  • Employees fear they may be embarrassed by being “publically called out” for their comments.
  • They place you in a “box” and don’t appreciate feedback that goes beyond your perceived area of expertise.
  • Senior leaders feel it will trigger an employee evaluation which will reflect badly on them.
  • There’s never any response so what’s the point?
  • Fear of reprisal in all sorts of different forms, not the least of which is receiving a poor performance appraisal.
  • Fear that the employee making the suggestion will now get their suggestion dumped onto their already filled-to-the-brim workload.
  • If employees don’t share information, then senior leaders won’t have to be held accountable for anything.

How to Encourage Employees to Speak Up at Work

  • I offer a variety of means for employees to speak up to appeal to different styles. So, I explicitly ask for feedback, but also provide a “manager’s mailbox” for people who want to remain anonymous with a suggestion. Comments are responded to immediately and questions and answers are shared with the entire team in a weekly update. As well, our company has ingrained it in one of our core values as “Value Feedback,” so we are expected to live up the value.
  • We hold regular coffee meeting sessions where employees are allowed and encouraged to ask any question on their mind.
  • I set regular office hours where employees know I am in and available for discussion or questions. I block off those hours and don’t allow anything or anyone to interfere with the blocked off time.
  • We have a Vegas Room decorated with a Vegas theme where employees are encouraged to hold difficult conversations, because… “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
  • We found that our employees had great ideas but did not have a platform to bring them forward. We wanted an innovative communication tool to assist employees with bringing forward ideas, problems or questions. We launched a program called SpeakUp – SpeakUp is a collaborative web-based communication tool where staff can pose a question, problem or idea publicly to the entire organization and get immediate feedback from peers and managers. Also, through SpeakUp employees can vote ideas up or down – they have a say in what happens next, we value their input, give them a tool to use and act on their posts. Ideas are voted up by staff, questions are answered by the experts within the workplace and problems are solved quickly. The program has been running within our organization for a few months and we have had many ideas come forward.

I’d love to hear from you on this topic:

  1. What reasons do employees find it difficult to speak up in your workplace?
  2. What have you tried that’s worked successfully to encourage open and honest communication in your workplace?

Michael Kerr

Michael Kerr is one of the most in-demand keynote speakers in Canada. He is a very funny motivational speaker and international business speaker who helps his clients succeed by leveraging “the humor advantage” for extraordinary, outrageous results! www.MikeKerr.com

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