As business leaders, the notion of speaking up at work may seem to be entirely logical and commonplace. But the fact is, many workers feel that they don’t have a voice and businesses suffer as a result. In this article, we take a closer look at the issue, the consequences and steps that can be taken to tackle it.

The idea of ’employee voice’

‘Employee voice’ is a term used by organisational psychologists. Although everyone at work has the ability to express themselves, some choose not to do so (those with a lesser voice) and others actively speak up on a regular basis (having a greater voice.)

Why do people choose not to speak up at work?

People may feel worried about the consequences of speaking up. They may also experience the ‘passive’ factor, which occurs when groups exist and those within it assume that someone else will do it. This is called the ‘diffusion of responsibility’ by psychologists and it occurs in all group scenarios and industries.

Other risk factors include situations where people feel that they are excluded within a corporate system, unsure of their place or powerless to say their piece.

How employees can suffer

Employees who suffer in silence can experience negative mental health impacts, poorer personal performance and more days off work. Those who don’t feel that their contribution is welcomed are far more likely to look for another job in another company.

Research and statistics

Research carried out by psychologist Mona Weiss in 2014, found that medical staff within mock lie or death situations spoke up more when they were of a higher status. 50% of nurses kept quiet when they observed fatal errors being (purposely made) on the training dummy. The majority of senior doctors tended to speak up.

The potential issues of not speaking up in such situations are clear in the medical industry. However, the concerns translate across into other industries too. The CCP Research Foundation found that unethical and incompetent behaviour led to twenty of the world’s largest banks racking up a collective £264 billion of compensation fees, regulatory fines and legal charges between 2011-2016.

In 2015, YouGov research revealed that nearly a third of people in the workplace had experienced bullying in the UK. In Australia, that figure rises to nearly one in two workers. ACAS, the union, also revealed in 2015 that it received 20,000 annual calls about bullying at work and that bullying costs Britain’s economy £18 billion every year. The issue is so fundamental to organisational success that it impacts wholly on the bottom line.

Supporting employee voice

Business cultures that encourage employees to speak up and be heard will have happier workers. The workforce will also perform more highly and turnover will be lower. And the nature of ‘speaking’ up needn’t just relate to concerns or problems, but also the sharing of ideas and suggestions for doing things better.

Taking steps to change

The personal stakes are what matter in these situations. Where individuals fear a backlash, then their subjective fears may exceed objective stakes. Here’s an example.

People like to belong to social groups. Imagine if a peer, or a more senior colleague, is telling an offensive anecdote, which you know to be wrong. Would you speak up and address it there and then, or would you stay silent? After all, being seen as a trouble-maker could harm your career. Also, if others are keeping quiet, then maybe you are just lacking in humour…

The importance of systems

Systems help to support behavioural change, by equipping employees with the tools and processes that they need to practice new behaviour. For example in the airline industry, the ‘two challenge rule’ applies to emergency situations. If a co-pilot sees that the captain is struggling or confused mid-flight, the co-pilot will verbalise a challenge. If there is no response, the co-pilot will issue it again. If there is still no response, the co-pilot can take forcible control of the plane. This type of approach may not work within a business, but it gives an insight into the frameworks that we need to put in place to encourage employee voice.

Know that, as a business leader, it isn’t enough to say that a new initiative to encourage ‘speaking up’ is being launched. For it to be a success, the right systems need to be put in place, the right behaviours modelled, and the right actions praised.

For example:

1. Encourage business leaders to model the desired behaviour. This reinforces the habit and expectation of speaking up and shows employees that it is welcomed.
2. Find ways to make speaking up less threatening and challenging. (This could include training on whistleblowing, anonymised feedback, written input and ideas schemes etc.)
3. Use new, shared language to empower speaking up. This could involve prefacing comments with ‘This isn’t a personal criticism, but…’ or, ‘I wonder if it might be helpful to try…’. Collective language is powerful too, and by simply using ‘we’ in discussions, it signals a welcomeness to input and ideas.
4. Set the tone. Business leaders should begin meetings, for example, by saying that all ideas are welcome and be heard.
5. Train all employees fully and appropriately
6. Be the change yourself!

Speaking up at work is more than just a ‘nice to have’. The ability to stimulate and welcome input from all employees is the key to a happier, more productive workforce with greater diversity, innovation and drive. Simply put, if you want a higher performance organisation, you need to ensure that everyone has a voice within it. With the stakes this high, it’s imperative to think seriously about your own corporate culture and where there might be room for change.


The Guardian: Worlds biggest-banks face £264bn bill for poor conduct

Forbes: Workplace bullying – here is why we need to talk about bullying in the workplace