Understand and Embrace the Employee Voice
As a leader in your organization, you must move beyond listening and understand and embrace the employee voice. You’ve probably taken some steps to listen to your employees. You care. You really do. As a result, you may be asking yourself, “How can our engagement scores be dropping? We ran a survey to show we care about what employees think! We consistently talk about their concerns at our meetings!” And yet, as an organization, understanding the voice of your employees continues to feel more like stumbling down a flight of stairs rather than a steady upward climb.
In the graphic below, you will see some of the questions that DecisionWise uses in their employee engagement survey to measure “employee voice.” Notice that most of the questions hinge on how employees feel.
This problem of “employee voice,” is a little different than communication. Communication either happens or it doesn’t (or people’s memories of the encounter don’t align). When it comes to employees feeling heard, perceptions trump all. But beyond feelings and perceptions, employees hunger for follow-up. “When is the leadership ever going to listen?” they wonder. What they really mean to ask is, “Are they ever going to show us that they listened?”
If you feel like you are stumbling in this area, don’t panic! Our DecisionWise panel of experts are here to help you get back on your feet. Their stories, observations, and insights will teach you how you can keep your employees talking so that you can land the next step: showing them that you listened.
Why Employees Don't Speak Up and How to Encourage Them to Talk
I sometimes see issues in organizations with long tenured employees such as government organizations. When people know they will be at a company their entire career, they may avoid creating waves in
order to avoid negativity. This fosters an environment where people don’t speak up. People take the path of least resistance when a manager says to do something a particular way. You start hearing voices less and less.
If you’re wondering if this is happening in your organization, look at how meetings are run:
- Do people share dissenting opinions?
- Do people question some of the decisions being made?
- Do people question the direction being set?
- Are there questions afterwards?
- Is there a bad pattern in the organization?
In engaged organizations, leaders want their employees to share their opinions, they want people to disagree and discuss and come to a coalition or an agreement on things. And they do this because they
want to get rid of this negative notion of “groupthink” where we’re all just “yes-men.”
I was impressed by the culture of one organization where they were always looking for ways to stay in contact with the front lines. They had many branches scattered in the US, and the senior
leadership team had become so disconnected from the front lines that it was very evident that feedback wasn’t making it up to them. To counteract this problem, they informed the leadership team that they could not come to the weekly executive staff meeting unless they had talked to at least 1-2 people on the front line. So, the first 30 to 45 minutes of the executive meeting was all about what are we hearing from employees. Are we delivering for the customers? Are we creating a great employee experience?
And so, I would ask organizations, what mechanisms are you putting in place that show that you do value the input and feedback of your employees? What are you doing to show them that you’ve acted on that feedback?
How to Listen to and Understand Employee Voice
I was working with the executive of a service engineering organization. His organization had several customer support specialists. Being in this role, they were more acquainted with customer concerns than the executive team.
So, he decided to bring his top talent together and give them some of the issues the executive teams were trying to solve. And he said, “You’re closest to the customer, and I want you to think through how we solve these problems.”
So, not only were they working on these really meaningful problems, but he had them share their recommendations with an executive panel. Senior leaders listened to the solutions that the top talent came up with and collaborated with them to refine their proposals. Together they were able to come up with some innovative solutions and others in this company saw their example and started to replicate this model.
Be a Vulnerable Leader to Encourage Employee Problem Solving
I was once presenting engagement results to an employee population where a new CEO was getting to know the population at the same time I happened to be there. He went through and said, “Hey, I’ve
toured all the facilities, I’m really excited about the energy, and I want to tell everyone that I don’t have all the answers, but I know good ideas when I see them.”
I’ve shared this with other clients in terms of, it’s okay to open up and be willing to say, “I don’t have all the answers. We need people closest to the customer, closest to the issues themselves to help
solve these problems.” Then I tell them to share stories that celebrate how solutions came from real-life problems that clients encountered and we’re all better because of it. And so those types of things create and reinforce culture and can really help boost the responses or the favorability on some of these survey questions tied to voice.
When I’m coaching executives, I tell them to start their conversations with, “I have an idea, but first, what do you think?” I end up using that with many coaching clients because they’re trying to learn how to delegate and change the environment around them. When people ask you questions, if you want to build trust in a relationship, don’t answer the question and let them walk away. Start that conversation showing interest in
If an employee has an idea that can’t be carried out, there is power in just telling them, “We can’t do that and
here’s why.” Otherwise they feel like they haven’t been heard. They’d rather receive a no than no answer. And it can be really empowering for the employee when you further the discussion. The discussion might look like
Manager: “We can’t do that right now because of x, y and z.”
Employee: “Well, I have additional information on x, y, and z as well.”
This helps the manager and employee walk down the path together more. It also helps an employee feel validated and part of something instead of marginalized or excluded from the process.
Make Small Changes to Change Company Culture
If you’ve taught your employees learned helplessness and they don’t feel like it matters if they speak up, nothing will ever happen when you start asking them for suggestions, ideas, or to express their thoughts and opinions, they could just hold back. They’re just going to say, “well, I’m going to wait. I’m not going to be that guy or that person that speaks up first.” There could be some legacy experiences in your organization.
I remember working with one organization where people referred to an experience where someone spoke up and got fired. And when I shared that with the executive team, they said, “That’s never happened around here. What are they referring to? That’s crazy!” And so even if the event never happened, it’s something that was imagined and got kind of baked into the employees’ thoughts. So, you have some hurdles maybe to overcome. So, it takes time and effort to build the trust, to start getting the ice to kind of flow, so to speak. And to create this culture takes some time.
I’ve had that conversation in coaching conversations, especially if innovation is a competency that’s low in terms of how the manager’s direct reports feel like they promote innovation and creativity on a routine basis. So, we talked about learning to recognize when you’re brainstorming and when you’re editing. Can you enter an idea generation session or hear people without shooting down ideas? And it’s interesting to get into an MBTI for intuitive versus sensing in terms of that. Because if, for example, I have a preference for sensing, when ideas are generated, I very quickly go to why they won’t work because I can think very tactically around,
okay, well there’s these other factors that will make that difficult. And there’s a time for that as you get into roadmaps and things like that. But there’s also a time to just freeform beat, let people be heard and get ideas out on the table. And so, I think there’s an interesting self-awareness aspect too, just knowing when we are idea generating and when we are idea selecting or critiquing and just being able to manage yourself accordingly.
I was at an engagement summit, where an employee brought up this example. He worked in a mine where it’s really dusty. In that environment, they had this dust sweeping machine that would drive around, but it wasn’t sucking up the dust. It would just spin everything around and create more dust and everybody knew it. But for two years they were paying somebody to drive that thing around. And then finally, somebody spoke up and said, “Can we fix that machine?” And management fixed it, and obviously people saw that.
In some instances, like the sweeper, these objects serve as emblems or tokens that management doesn’t care and isn’t listening. And if you change that token and actually get a real duster, that can change the story. But often times, you have to actually tell people, hey, by the way, we changed that. I don’t know if you all noticed that, we heard from you guys. It wasn’t working. We actually changed it. And have you noticed
it’s working a lot better. Sometimes you have to be explicit about that and look for the emblems that anchor the old stories.
See Employees as Peers Sharing Information and Best Practices
Give employees your intent rather than instruction. They may come up with a better way of reaching the result than you would. More autonomy leads to greater innovation, engagement, and growth.
Questions to Ask Yourself:
- What if you looked at your employee as a leader rather than a follower?
- What areas can they lead in?
- Where are their strengths?
- What information do they have that could provide value to you and the team?
Ensure you are including everyone’s voice. Subtle biases and norms can be a barrier to minorities’ contributions. Make sure you solicit their input in meetings and one-to-ones.
Don’t you want to attract and retain top talent? If you do, remember that top talent come with strong voices that want to be heard. You want to understand and embrace the employee voice. To engage these all-stars, make training your leaders a priority. You can coach them internally or hire an executive coach, but make sure they learn how to show vulnerability, seek out employees’ solutions, and master the art of show and tell.