As I was fresh out of my master’s program and going through all of my rotation assignments, I saw a great deal I thought could be improved, so I submitted a dozen or so different proposals for this innovation initiative.
I quickly began to lose steam, however, as two things happened that put a damper on my personal initiative. First, I was called into my boss’s office and told to essentially “cool my jets” as I was still relatively new to the organization, learning the ropes, establishing relationships, etc. I was told that if I kept submitting proposals, I would be sending the wrong messages: I wasn’t a team player, and I thought I knew better than everyone else. In many ways this seemed like good political advice, so I agreed to spend more time observing and learning.
However, the second thing to really put a chill on my initiative was when I started to observe the organization, including my boss, making many of the changes I had proposed. Normally, this would be exciting and validating, but it just made me angry and caused me to disengage. You see, they took credit for my ideas. I was never acknowledged for any of my submitted proposals, and I never received any bonuses.
And it wasn’t long before I chose to leave the firm.
What is ‘Speak-Up Culture?’
Have you ever been a part of an organization that discouraged or even punished its employees from speaking up, pointing out problems or trying to disrupt the status quo in some way? If so, how much disruption and innovation happened in this organization? Probably not much.
In her recent LinkedIn article, Tanya Finnie defines what has become known as speak-up culture, which refers to a safe space for people to speak up and speak out, where they can feel emboldened to point out both challenging areas and opportunities for new disruptions and innovations.
Additionally, in a recent academic article in Organization Science, the researchers state, “Voice, or employees’ upward expression of challenging but constructive concerns or ideas on work-related issues, can play a critical role in improving organizational effectiveness. Despite its importance, evidence suggests that many managers are often hesitant to solicit voice from their employees. … Voice is a distinctive behavior that involves escalation of opinions, ideas, or concerns by employees to their managers with the expectation that they would respond by making systemic changes in their teams.”
As we create a safe space for our people to speak up and speak out, where they can feel emboldened to point out both challenging areas and opportunities for new disruptions and innovations, our teams and organizations will thrive.
Creating a Speak-Up Environment
So how can leaders encourage their employees to speak up and share their ideas?
In a recent HBR article, the authors describe this problem well: “When employees share novel ideas and bring up concerns or problems, organizations innovate and perform better. Employees are often the first to see issues on the frontlines, so their input can really help managerial decision making. Yet, managers do not always promote employees’ ideas. In fact, they can even actively disregard employee concerns and act in ways that discourage employees from speaking up at all.”
Unfortunately, while the many benefits of speak-up culture are clear, many managers remain hesitant to seek input from their people and are even less likely to really listen when that input is provided. And while disregarding employee input can cause frustration and disengagement of some of your best people (even causing them to leave), actively discouraging employees from speaking up can have even more severe detrimental impacts on the long-term effectiveness of the team and the strategic competitive advantage of the firm.
Inclusion and ‘Speak-Up Culture’
I have written previously about the importance of creating dynamic organizational cultures and systems that promote diversity, inclusion and belonging. One approach to leveraging the diverse human capital in the organization is to encourage your people to speak up.
As stated in a recent Medium article, “Inclusive leaders create a ‘speak-up culture’ where members of their teams feel welcome and included, free to share their ideas and opinions, and confident that their ideas are heard and recognized.” Tanya Finnie further argues that “global leaders who supported diversity and inclusion were more likely to foster collaboration and saw a majority of their team members feel free to express their views and opinions. These leaders were found to have several distinct qualities including; asking questions, facilitating constructive arguments, giving actionable feedback, taking advice and implementing feedback, sharing credit for team success and empowering decision making among team members.”
“Speak-up culture” is an inherent characteristic of an inclusive organization, with a dynamic people-centric culture. While it can be difficult to create and maintain, it is well worth the effort. As leaders, we need to foster a safe environment where employee input is valued. We can’t outsource our responsibility to be the architect of our team’s inclusive culture and a dynamic speak-up environment. We can’t outsource our responsibility to drive strategic innovation. As we help our people to know that their input is truly needed, we can leverage their passion and creativity.