Speaking up is very important in all aspects of our life. For instance, we might choose to speak up when we are not happy with our situation, and it can take a number of shapes and forms. From polite requests in a restaurant to ranting on Twitter, the spectrum covers a lot of options. However, people do not always feel like they can, or should, speak up. Whether that is a case of lack of opportunity, fear of speaking up or a sense of pointlessness, there are a multitude of reasons for silence.
We ran a Jam – an online crowdsourcing solution that enables thousands of people to discuss a set number of topics – with a multinational organisation in November, and one of the big discoveries of the project was that employees did not feel like they could speak up. They did not feel there were enough channels or opportunities, and they felt that their leaders did not listen. Simply put, the environment was not psychologically safe. Research shows that in psychologically safe environments, employees feel encouraged to ask for clarification, to point out errors, and to share new and challenging ideas.
So how can organisations help employees have the confidence to speak up?
Often, it is the day-to-day behaviour of leadership and line managers that determines whether psychological safety exists within an organisation. Halfhearted efforts like vague invitations to submit opinions and ideas will not work. What will make a difference is taking the following four steps to assure employees that it is both safe and worthwhile to speak up and contribute:
Initiate: Initiating conversations informally is much more effective than just being open to it when it comes your way.
Intimacy: Psychological safety requires leaders to minimise the institutional and attitudinal distances that typically separate them from their employees. This shifts the focus from a top-down distribution of information to a bottom-up exchange of ideas.
Immunity: Employees need to feel empowered to experiment and fail.
Intentionality: In surveys of more than 3,500 employees in multiple organisations, James Detert of Columbia University found that leaders’ failure to ‘close the loop’ increased subordinates’ belief that speaking up was futile by 30%. But if leaders had closed the loop in the past, their reports spoke up 19% more frequently. This highlights an important learning for leaders: if they’d like their employees to speak up they need to commit to acting on the concerns of their employees.
Talking openly and honestly is of great value in the workplace, and we all need the right space and tools to achieve this. Whether the tool is having a chat in the communal kitchen while sipping your morning coffee or a crowdsourcing platform involving tens of thousands of people across the entire organisation, the point is that we all need to be enabled to feel confident enough to voice our feelings and opinions without having to worry about any negative consequences.
 Project Aristotle, Google
 Giles, S. 2016. The most important leadership competencies, according to leaders around the world. Harvard Business Review
 Future of Work Research Consortium, A FoW Report on Power and Leadership. 2016
 Groysberg, B. and Slind, M., 2012. Leadership is a conversation. Harvard business review, 90(6), pp.76-84
 Detert, J.R. and Burris, E.R., 2016. Can Your Employees Really Speak Freely? Harvard Business Review, 94(1-2), pp.80-87