“How can these things not impact you at work? Now more than ever, there’s no way not to talk about it. There’s no way it doesn’t make its way into the workplace because it has gotten to a point where it has impacted so much of my days and thoughts. It impacts how you interact with people you work with. It impacts your work and your performance at work. It impacts the trust level of the people you work with.”
That was the response to my question regarding the impact of last year’s Atlanta spa shooting where eight Asian women were killed. I sat down with Asian-American work colleagues and had a conversation, where they shared their experiences with racism and identity. After the conversation, we all expressed gratitude that there was an office culture where their thoughts, ideas and concerns could be expressed.
As an employee engagement and voice researcher, I have always felt creating a voice culture is critical to creating a psychologically safe work culture, and in turn, an employee’s engagement state. In a psychologically safe work culture, people feel free to take risks whether it relates to creativity, innovation or exercising their voices.
I used to feel this employee voice solely related to organizational issues. But over the past two years, I realized voice should also include the factors that impact how employees choose to be present and engaged when showing up for work. COVID-19, race and social justice issues, a hyper-partisan political landscape and the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine impact employees’ engagement, well-being and how they present themselves in work roles.
What does the research say?
Researchers found employees feel being listened to is the most important factor in determining how they valued their organization. However, employees do not feel comfortable speaking to their bosses about organizational problems or issues. These employees choose to stand silent. And this silence deprives organizations of potentially valuable information that can impact wellbeing, performance and productivity.
After the complexities of the past two-plus years, having a voice culture becomes critical and necessary. Perceptyx’s Allie Behr argues today’s leaders have to shape their organizational “future of work” designs which incorporate managing hybrid/remote work, work/life balance and childcare, mental and physical well-being and employees’ disparate experiences of diversity, equity and inclusion.
A voice culture has been found to mediate positive organizational outcomes, such as performance, wellness, retention and brand. Conversely, a silence culture mediates burnout, deficient performance and high turnover. Jennifer Garvey Berger suggests in complex times like these, leaders can solve wicked organizational problems by asking questions and seeking multiple perspectives.
Whether the organization’s culture is grounded in voice or silence can dictate the success of solutions. My research with civil servants shows when people are working in a voice culture, they feel more valued, safe, confident and available. Conversely, when those same civil servants are in a culture of silence, they feel fearful, useless, overwhelmed and insecure. If you are looking for creativity and innovation from your workforce, which culture do you think aligns to those goals?
How do you create a voice culture?
First, leaders must care about people being heard. For CEOs and change agents viewed as command-and-control leaders, lacking emotional intelligence, or having desire to hear multiple perspectives, creating a voice culture will be a challenge. Without leadership buy-in, exercising voice about thoughts, ideas and concerns will be stifled due to perceptions of fear and futility, resulting in employee and organizational silence.
It helps to view implementing a voice culture through the prism of change management. McKinsey researchers found only 30 percent of change initiatives are successful, and within the public sector the success rate drops to 20 percent. Most change initiatives fall short for three reasons: 1) the leaders and change agents cannot embody the “to-be” state of the change; 2) failure to address and mitigate resistance; and 3) resource challenges.
Define success: Organizational leaders must define and constantly articulate what success looks like and why creating a voice culture is important to the organization. I tend to align the why of a voice culture to an organization’s core values. Defining success with clear goals provides clarity and line-of-sight to creating a voice culture. Additionally, this articulation provides a target when evaluating the effort.
This success definition should include assessing the current culture to determine whether the culture is aligned to voice or silence, and other strengths and weaknesses. Often, skipping this step results in actions that fall short because of feelings of fear, retaliation and futility. Further, without including employees (and other stakeholders) in this process, solutions may not hit the target. This assessment can be done using climate surveys, pulse surveys or even as informal as using slips of paper for capturing anonymous thoughts.
The definition of success and culture assessment provides the foundation for identifying the why, what and howregarding developing and implementing a voice culture and making it part of the woven fabric of the organization.
Train and develop emotionally intelligent leaders: A major driver of creating a culture where all types of conversations are possible is having supervisors and leaders with the skill and desire to connect with staff. Leaders, specifically chief human resource officers, must create and implement methods and practices to ensure emotional intelligence is a part of their talent management systems. Faroshia Ashley, the founder of Netherlands-based Emoworks, says emotional intelligence is for creating connection and a voice culture, as the ability to manage emotions is at the core of an organization’s ability to respond to change, resilience and drive performance.
Empower employees: Klaus Schwab, CEO of the World Economic Forum, argues empowered employees and customers are the key to organizational success, which is achieved by having emotionally intelligent leaders. Even further, empowered employees provide better customer service than disengaged employees. Employees often hear of problems and understand the corresponding potential solutions. According to researcher Lina Xiong, when employees are empowered to take risks and solve customer queries, it has a positive impact on customer service and organizational brand. When employees feel their ideas, thoughts and ideas are heard and acted on they feel valued, safe and confident, which has positive impacts on productivity and accountability.