Helping silenced staff find their voice at work

If HR wants to encourage employees to speak up, we need to look at the real power differentials inside our organisations, say Professor Megan Reitz and John Higgins

Businesses get stuck with the same people speaking up and the same people getting heard or ignored. This is how they become echo chambers, with every new change, strategy and transformation looking a lot like what went before. 

New ideas sit on the shelf. Things that shouldn’t be going on aren’t called out. People lose any sense of being able to influence what goes on. We need to help silenced employees find their voice, transforming fear, cynicism and helplessness into a force for innovation and creative energy. 

Most HR work in this area focuses on the necessary, but insufficient, development of employees’ confidence and courage to speak up. The unspoken assumption is that if you’re not speaking up, it’s your problem. Our research indicates there is an even more important aspect: listening up and listening up to hear (not to rebut or to go through the motions).

Speaking up doesn’t happen in a vacuum – it’s relational. We are more likely to speak up if we feel it’s safe and if the invitation comes from a place of positive intention. The question becomes less about how we give people the skills to speak up and more about how we can skilfully invite others to speak up. Here are three suggestions drawn from our five-year research project on the topic:

Really talk about power

When we do and don’t communicate we automatically apply titles and labels to ourselves and others, like ‘director’, ‘female’ or ‘HR’, all of which convey relative status and authority. We ask ourselves: ‘In this situation, with these people, do I have the right to speak up and are they someone I should listen to?’

If we want to change who says what and who gets heard, we must explore which labels count in our organisation and why. We must bring power out of the shadows and question and disrupt ways of determining status. Claiming to be a ‘flat organisation’ does not disappear the reality of power and hierarchy.

Help those with power realise they’re scary

Most managers and leaders we work with think they are approachable. They say their door is always open and often mean it. Their mistake is they forget that others will be intimidated by the power of the labels and titles placed on them. Our survey of 4,000 employees shows clearly that the more senior you are, the more optimistic (or deluded?) you are that those around you are speaking up when they aren’t.

We all need to ask ourselves: ‘Who might find me scary or intimidating and how can I put them at their ease?’ 

Encourage speaking up

We send signals all the time that get interpreted by others who then decide whether it is safe to speak up. Angry resting face, unreadable mask, permanently rushing or buzzing phone notifications can render others silent. Especially if we are in positions of power, we need to ensure we are sending more ‘speak up’ signals than ‘shut up’ ones. 

How did you respond the last time you were challenged? You might respond superbly nine times out of 10, but it is that one occasion when you were curt or dismissive that will be remembered. Seemingly mundane negative responses you might not even remember can reverberate and silence others. 

We are often blind to our signals and responses and simply seeking feedback won’t work. If others are intimidated they won’t give it to you. Instead, ask: ‘If there was one way I could help others to speak up more, what would it be?’ How you respond to what they say will be the beginning or end of any shift in your speak-up culture.

Megan Reitz is professor of leadership and dialogue at Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School. John Higgins is a research fellow at Gameshift, a coach and a consultant. They are authors of Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard