Make It Safe for Employees to Speak Up — Especially in Risky Times

Make It Safe for Employees to Speak Up — Especially in Risky Times

By Matt Dallisson, 19/05/2023

The World Uncertainty Index remains high. Bank failures, war, inflation, and layoffs are contributing to a growing sense of instability and unease. As an HR manager at a technology firm told us, “Just seeing your team decrease from 35 to 18 can be very scary; it brings forth strong anxiety and worry over your job.”

Whenever the world seems like a scary place, it’s natural for people to avoid taking risks in order to protect themselves. In our research and consulting with organizations, we’re seeing this risk aversion permeate both virtual and real-world hallways, resulting in employees being reluctant to speak up.

We know that in stable times, companies learn faster and better when employees reveal errors, raise ideas, pose questions, and challenge perspectives. In unstable times, those same acts of knowledge-sharing, pressure-testing, and feedback are even more vital, often making the difference between companies that innovate and adapt and those that don’t.

For organizations to weather the storms ahead, they need to leverage every asset they have, including the full set of talents and insights available in their workforce. Psychological safety — the belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation — is what enables employees to use their voices, and it’s more important than ever that leaders build it.

Why Silence Is Safer

People don’t want to take risks that might harm their reputations or livelihoods, which makes sense when you compare the outcomes of voice versus silence. As the following chart, adapted from Amy’s book The Fearless Organization, highlights, speaking up is an act that mainly benefits the organization and/or its customers, not the individual employee. Moreover, those benefits aren’t even guaranteed and tend to take time to materialize. Meanwhile, holding back gives the employee the instant and certain benefit of feeling safe from exposure.

Leaders must grasp this asymmetry in order to avoid the all-too-common tendency to blame employees for staying silent. Why should they make a perceived sacrifice to their careers for the sake of a distant, unsure gain for others?

It is thus the responsibility of leaders to make speaking up worth employees’ while.

Auditing Yourself and Your Workplace

Your employees aren’t the only ones who need psychological safety in order to use their voices at work. As people rise in organizations, the pressure to hold back increases. As INSEAD professor Gianpiero Petriglieri eloquently wrote, “Time does not summon courage. It only morphs the fear of speaking truth to power into the fear of speaking truth in power.” The reality is that most leaders are not demonstrating the behaviors that drive psychological safety for themselves or others, as research by McKinsey & Company has found.

When we work with senior executives, we ask them to turn a mirror on themselves before focusing on the behavior of others. For example, at a company that had recently announced thousands of job cuts, Constance asked a business unit leader if she felt increased pressure to present a rosy picture of her unit’s work to the C-suite, board of directors, and Wall Street. The leader ruefully admitted that she did, and therefore was actively trying to resist her own temptation to self-censor around these audiences.

Before embarking on a psychological safety campaign, take some time to audit your own fears and behaviors. When do you speak up? When do you hold back? The answers will provide clues as to the risk-tolerance climate you and your employees face. Importantly, remember that if you find that your own psychological safety — your willingness to take risks — is low, you’re no doubt subtly signaling to subordinates that it’s better to hold back.

The Winning Formula for Psychological Safety

Thankfully, Amy long ago developed a “winning formula” for creating psychological safety: Clarify the rationale for speaking up, issue targeted invitations, reduce (if not eliminate) punishments, and amplify rewards. Here are some ways to implement the winning formula in your workplace:

Clarify the rationale.

Show your employees why each of their contributions are needed — not only for some far-off future, but right now. Discussions where you encourage speaking up should not be separate from conversations about strategy, marketing, R&D, operations, finance, etc. In fact, making the link between those business activities and speaking up is essential for motivating engagement. For example, explain why attracting new customers is dependent upon each team member’s bold ideas and different perspectives, or convey how a rigorous, collaborative strengths-and-weaknesses assessment will help the company’s developers build a better product.

Alternatively, if the business is focused on cost-cutting, explain why people should still highlight and learn from mistakes or challenge the status quo. These acts feel especially perilous when the prospect of job losses loom large. For example, employees may fear that revealing a problem in a manufacturing line will increase the chance of plant closure, while in truth it may be exactly what’s needed to ensure the plant’s future. In addition, employees may need to hear that that those who demonstrate initiative and critical thinking will be valued as contributors.

In our experience, it takes many iterations and forms of communication before employees start to internalize this new way of thinking. Clarifying the rationale involves conveying why and how speaking up benefits each employee individually as well as the organization. Be explicit about this logic and repeat it often.

Issue targeted invitations.

Many managers think vague invitations for input are sufficient. They’re not. For example, we’ve met innumerable managers who report having an “open door policy” in the office or being available “anytime” for a quick Teams chat. Yet those same managers also report a lack of candid and timely input from their employees. Even if you have town halls, listening tours, Slack channels, and culture surveys, it still takes effort and follow-up to ensure that they’re working. Otherwise, you’re at risk of missing important aspects of what’s happening, or of hearing from only those employees who are especially passionate about an issue.

Provide employees specific direction for how to effectively speak up — and about what. Ask them direct questions to get their perspectives. If you host a town hall, be explicit with attendees about the topics you need input on in advance. Another practice is hosting monthly one-on-ones with each direct report with just two agenda items: “What should I know — but don’t — right now?” and “How can I better support your risk-taking?” The structured invitations don’t have to be complicated; they need to be clear and targeted.

Stamp out punishments.

Humans are constantly monitoring their environment. Employees consciously and unconsciously notice the body language, verbalizations, and actions that follow any act of risk-taking. Decades of social science research have shown us that bad is stronger than good when it comes to reinforcing human behavior.

This means you must vigilantly watch for negative consequences of speaking up and swiftly correct any that emerge. Your responses as the boss carry heavy weight. It’s essential to monitor and modulate your expression and behavior to convey openness and gratitude in the face of challenges. When you make a mistake (we all do), such as getting upset about bad news, apologize quickly.

Engage a coach to help you with this if needed. Your goal is to rid the social system of censure, ridicule, and disregard toward those who speak up. This may require individual and team training to build up skills. Practice via role-plays and simulations may also be helpful.

Stack up rewards.

Reducing the downside of speaking up is necessary, and so is increasing the upside. Start by over-indexing on appreciation. Speaking up is an act of generosity. It involves an employee doing something that feels potentially harmful to them individually but benefits the collective. So, thank them — publicly, privately, often, and with sincerity.

“Why do I have to thank someone for doing their job?” we hear managers grumble. “Ah,” we say in response. “Are you sure that’s clearly part of their job?” Really ask yourself that question: Are acts of candor baked into performance appraisals, compensation, bonuses, and promotions? Are teams being celebrated for having honest conversations that catch errors early, involve healthy forms of conflict, and generate feelings of inclusion? If you’re not sure, then this is a good time to reassess your performance management system. Alignment between what you ask of employees and what you reward is critical for engagement and holds both sides accountable.

Contrary to how it may seem, these challenging times present a golden opportunity to foster psychological safety in organizations. In times of acute uncertainty, conducting business-as-usual is a flawed approach. What’s required instead is creativity, experimentation, learning, and flexibility, but these can feel riskier than ever to employees. Leaders are dependent on the contributions of employees’ ideas, perspectives, talents, and insights. In short, they’re dependent on psychological safety if they wish to harness the full power of the workforce to address the challenges ahead.

This content was originally published here.