If You Want Employees to Speak Up, Start by Minimizing Threat

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Authored by

NLI Staff
If leaders can make their organization a psychologically safe place to speak up, they can tap into a wellspring of new ideas from otherwise quiet folks.

Employees don’t keep quiet or speak up just because it’s their personality. Often, the work environment plays an outsized role in whether people find their voice.

Specifically, it may all come down to social threat, or the performance-limiting experience of feeling powerless, excluded, or uncertain in social contexts.

Based on NLI’s review of the research on quality conversations, people will speak up in difficult situations only if their perceived threat is low. That means they feel psychologically safe and know that speaking up won’t result in punishment or retribution. If employees think there’s more to lose than gain, they’ll probably keep quiet.

Situations over personalities

One of the more intriguing pieces of research in this area comes from organizational psychology experts Hemant Kakkar, of the London Business School, and Subra Tangirala, from the University of Maryland. In a 2016 study, which the authors recently explored in a piece for HBR, they found situational factors — not so much personal factors — led employees to speak up.

Situational factors generally boil down to company culture: Do people feel dissent is welcome? Will their manager listen to them? They include the many environmental cues that people use to guide their behavior. (It also happens to be why NLI defines “culture” as shared everyday habits.)

Situational factors, the researchers found, more often led people to highlight physical safety concerns, challenge the status quo, and report questionable behavior.

“This finding suggests that if you want employees to speak up, the work environment and the team’s social norms matter,” the authors wrote. “Even people who are most inclined to raise ideas and suggestions may not do so if they fear being put down or penalized. On the flip side, encouraging and rewarding speaking up can help more people do so, even if their personality makes them more risk-averse.”

That’s a key takeaway for leaders: The more you validate the act of speaking up, the more people will speak up.

Reduce threat, raise voice

In situations where employees speak up, the common thread is that using their voice feels non-threatening. When people feel threatened, their cognitive functions suffer. They back away from the problem. Meanwhile, those who feel rewarded — or expect a future reward — tend to feel motivated to act, and in this case speak up. It all depends on whether the organization has made it clear, through its shared everyday habits, that people have more to gain than lose when they use their voice.

We know from research on inclusion that there’s a huge upside to raising voices. Greater diversity of thought can lead to less-biased decision-making and greater collective intelligence, and it can cancel out the downsides of power imbalances.

In other words, teams that permit speaking up won’t just be safer psychologically — they’ll be stronger and more effective as a whole.

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