I was working the lunch shift, and my customer asked for a maraschino cherry in his whiskey sour. My boss, running the bar, informed me that we were out. Cool, no problem.
However, later I saw a jar of cherries on a shelf, slightly out of sight.
I went to the front and let my boss know.
Her baffling response:
“No there isn’t”
I went back and looked again, Yup, just out of reach, an ordinary jar of cherries.
I went back to her and carefully said, “I don’t know if those are being saved for something else, but there is a jar on the shelf above the sink.”
A few minutes later, that boss stomped towards me and threw the jar of cherries on the floor next to my feet. The glass shattered as crushed cherries stained my apron and white shoes a bloody red.
“There are your fucking cherries. Don’t ever correct me again.”
You can imagine how many times I brought up any new ideas or shared concerns again.
Psychological safety is all the rage nowadays, and for good reason. A culture where employees are encouraged to share their voice is one where they can contribute authentically, it creates a positive and productive workplace, and helps to win the war for talent. It empowers employees to discuss mistakes, share concerns, and highlight small problems before they escalate.
Creating a culture that enables innovation, one that hears problems before they happen, and encourages employees to be vulnerable enough to share is all well and good.
So why isn’t this happening?
For an employee to feel invested in their company, they must feel invested in. Employees share their voice because they believe something will be done in response — things will change, concerns will be addressed, solutions will be implemented, misconduct will stop.
When things don’t change without closing the feedback loop— trust is lost. The employee no longer sees the point in bringing things up.
Research by the Harvard Business Review looked at two types of employees in two different situations:
- High-approach employees (those who speak out often)
- Low-approach employees (those who rarely speak out)
- Low-risk situations (bringing up novel ideas or sharing positive feedback)
- High-risk situations (situations necessitating high levels of trust — bringing up concerns, or speaking up when feeling a potential for threat and punishment)
As you might expect, low-approach employees spoke up less often in both situations, and high-approach employees spoke up more often in both. However;
“-the extent to which or how often a person speaks up with constructive ideas or issues at work is almost completely independent from the extent to which or how often they intentionally withhold ideas or issues. In fact, in several studies and organizations included in our meta-analysis, we saw that people quite often volunteered ideas in order to help their teams even as they silenced their fears.” — Harvard Business Review
This shows that even the employees who routinely share their ideas cannot be counted on to speak up in a difficult situation if the foundational trust hasn’t been established, or when bringing up an unfamiliar topic.
NLI’s review of the research on conversations, showed that people will speak up in threatening situations only if they believe the threat level is low — meaning they feel psychologically safe and know that sharing their concerns won’t result in punishment or retribution.
If employees think there’s more to lose than gain, they’ll probably keep quiet.
The default is to keep quiet, whether about positive ideas, or concerns. Building the bridge of trust to go from silent to open isn’t a one-directional line. The research above shows that those who speak out often likely aren’t speaking out about everything.
When a high-approach employee brings up a long-standing concern, it’s confusing for their leader. But when the immediate response is “Why didn’t you speak up earlier?” the newly-built foundation of trust may be rocked. The employee now feels at fault for not having the trust built before and are unlikely to bring up concerns again.
Companies benefit when employees speak up. When employees feel comfortable candidly voicing their opinions, suggestions, or concerns, organizations become better at meeting challenges as well as finding opportunities.
So what causes employees to feel unsafe when sharing their voices?
1. They think leaders don’t care
According to research from FastCompany: 41% said leadership doesn’t value innovation, and 67% said leadership operates on the old maxim of “this is how we’ve always done it.”
Sharing ideas and concerns is work, and if they routinely don’t see value in their work, they will stop doing it. They will turn that mental energy to other work that provides value — whether continuing to do their jobs in the same old way, or using that energy on more personally valuable work: starting a side gig, improving their skills, or figuring out their next move.
2. Leaders don’t ask
In that same research, nearly half of employees reported not being regularly asked for their insights.
“But my door is always open!” I hear you yelling from the other side of the computer (hi!) — but that isn’t enough for most employees to feel that they’ve been genuinely invited to the table.
Asking directly, and often, while demonstrating that something will come of it is how to genuinely invite collaboration.
Forty percent of respondents reported a lack of confidence when sharing their ideas. When silence and just doing your job is the easiest and safest option, and the reward for speaking up is vague or absent: why should anyone speak up? Especially as modern-day breadlines dominate the news. Would you rock the boat?
4. Why waste their time?
Most employees think that their voice will be ignored, so why bother? This is especially true when employees HAVE shared their thoughts and nothing was done. Fifty percent of the employees surveyed said they believe that if they share an idea, it won’t be taken seriously, or they won’t get credit (56%).
If the feedback loop is broken, innovation will stop. No one wants to make contributions that aren’t recognized or valued.
“It’s human nature to stop trying and redirect energy where you believe it will do some good. Our research is filled with examples of smart, creative people, even at the executive level, who made deliberate decisions to stop bringing new ideas because they felt it was a waste of time,” — David Dye, Courageous Cultures.
5. They don’t want to be difficult
Who wants to be known as the negative one? The Karen? The whiner?
Employees often keep quiet about an issue often because they’re worried about being labeled a “complainer” or fear losing credibility. In a study by a leadership training company, Vitalsmarts, more than a third (37%) were afraid that bringing up concerns would brand them as a complainer, hurting their careers.
Understanding your company culture and how you encourage and/or stifle voices is a complicated matter. It’s not as easy as asking anyone who has a problem to speak up. It is not as easy as assuming that those who do speak up feel open to do so in all situations. This work takes time, patience, and a heck of a lot of emotional intelligence.
However, the organization that gets this right, is the organization that succeeds.