How to Encourage Employees to Speak Up with Ethan Burris

by Culturati Scholar, Ethan Burris, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Management at The University of Texas at Austin and David Green, Host of Digital HR Leaders Podcast

Attribution: Digital HR Leaders with David Green

On the show today, I am talking to Ethan Burris, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Management at The University of Texas at Austin, where we will discuss Ethan’s fascinating work on employee voice.

Throughout our conversation Ethan and I discuss the organisational dynamics surrounding employee voice and leadership. In particular, we discuss:

  • What employees need to consider when giving feedback to their managers and selling ideas up the chain of command
  • How managers can create an environment where their employees feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback
  • What companies need to consider when trying to scale employee listening
  • Ethan’s thoughts on how HR can add business value as we start to come out of the pandemic

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Interview Transcript

David Green: Today, I am delighted to welcome Ethan Burris, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Management at The University of Texas at Austin, to The Digital HR Leaders Podcast.

Welcome to the show, Ethan. In the green room, we were just talking about that we haven’t seen each other for probably three years, since we are both at the Wharton People Analytics Conference, so it is really good to see you.

Can you provide listeners with a brief introduction to you and your role at The University of Texas?

Ethan Burris: Sure thing. So first, thanks for having me, David, lovely to be here. Lovely to see you again and nice to reconnect.

So I have been here at McCombs, for 17 years. I got here in 2005 as an assistant professor and then I have worked my way up from there.

As an instructor, I teach a variety of leadership courses. The one that is probably the most foundational is called Leading For Impact. It is a two year long, leadership development course that spans both years of the MBA program. So I see them in during orientation, right at the beginning of their student journey within McCombs, all the way up, I think my last class is about a week before they actually graduate. And so it is a lovely opportunity to see their development and their career trajectories from there. I also do teach a course on people analytics, we can get into that in a bit. That stems from a stint as a visiting scholar at Google, about seven or eight years ago. Working in what was called their PI labs, people innovation lab, which is a small division within their people analytics group.

So on the outskirts of seeing how the sausage is made, within one of the most advanced organisations in this space, I was able to work with a lot of companies to write some cases that leverage employment data, real, but sanitised and anonymous.

And then that is really helpful and informative for our students to get exposure to a lot of different aspects of the people analytics functions. Then from there, a whole variety of other courses, everything from managing power and politics in organisations, to a leadership development course, where we take groups of students to Patagonia, Chile, on a 10 day backpacking expedition to learn how they lead in unconventional and dynamic environments. So that is the instructor and teaching hat, that I wear. My research, I am tenure track and research active. I focus on a concept I call, employee voice, what leads employees to speak up in organisations. That is having honest and candid conversations with your boss, about things that are working well and things that aren’t. How those conversations go, which is not always the smoothest.

And so I really do work with both sides of the same coin. So what can employees do to better socialise their ideas? How can you position them for success? And at the same time, I also work with executives and leaders on how they can instill a culture of voice. So what are things they can do to create that sense of both psychological safety, but also feelings that it is a worthwhile endeavour for employees to engage in those actions? And then most recently, I have taken both of those areas, instruction and research, and started a leadership centre, The Centre for Leadership and Ethics, where part of that mission is to create some of these innovative courses and curriculum, but also partner with a number of organisations who would like to provide some analytics on some of these fuzzy topics, like leadership and voice. So we have been lucky enough to work with a number of companies in the space, not only in my area, but with a number of other faculty colleagues here at UT. Then the last bit is, I am coming up on three months now, of starting as Senior Associate Dean. What that means is all faculty and all programs, MBA, our one-year masters, undergraduate, PhD programs, all those programs, report up to me within the business school.

So it has been a transition to, not only talking about this in the classroom and doing research on it, but now I have an opportunity to actually put it into practice which has been a lot more challenging than even, what I would have thought.

David Green: That is great, what a great collection of experiences and they are all linked to each other. We are going to talk quite a lot about the work that you have been doing around employee voice, today. Before we get into that, I would love to hear about how you became interested in leadership and the world of work?

Ethan Burris: It started in graduate school. I was always interested in the intersection of psychology and organisations. I would say there is kind of two stories here, one is the boring academic one and one is the real fun one, so I will give you both. The boring academic one is, I really became fascinated with why organisations make decisions that clearly everyone knows are not good. So this notion of politics and that people clearly have an inkling of the direction that they should go as an organisation, yet for a variety of reasons, we end up doing things that are sub optimal. And eventually that led me to this concept of voice and at the time, there was a lot of work on the factors that lead people to speak up. So, how do you assess if it is a safe and worthwhile activity?

I know you have had Amy Edmondson, on before and she talks about this notion of psychological safety and that is one of these foundations of why people do and don’t speak up.

And really where my dissertation work took off was, employees have these assessments and often they are dead wrong. So understanding the psychology of managers really became the focus of my work and trying to get inside their heads, for how they actually respond when people come to them, not only with ideas for doing things different, but things that actually challenge you. You know, you have been doing things in a particular way. You have policies and routines and all these activities set up and now one of your team members, or someone else in the organisation, is coming to you and saying, either explicitly or implicitly, you are wrong and that is not always the easiest experience to go through. That was the academic take. I read through this stuff and eventually arrived at these set of questions. The other more fun take is, during graduate school, my wife was working at the time and experienced all of this in real time. So I would be reading about this stuff and all of a sudden I would come home and she is saying “I can’t stand my boss. I have these ideas and I get shot down of work” She had relationships and even some coaching and mentorship relationships, with folks outside of her department and came back with lots of ideas. To make a long story short, during a Friday afternoon, her boss told her that under no circumstances was she allowed to interact with folks outside of her department, because that led to lots of ideas about things that needed to change within her group and her boss wasn’t ready to engage in those efforts. It is never a good sign when you come home on a Friday evening and you already have trepidation about returning to work that following Monday. It ruins your whole weekend and she ended up quitting. Again, I was in graduate school. I think my stipend was $11,000 a year. She had no other job lined up. Was out of work for about six months. Took a different role that was about a 25% pay cut, but a wonderful boss. And even to this day, she said she would do it all over again, identically the same.

And so this notion of your experience at work, really being shaped by your immediate supervisor. that really became the fascination in a whole lot of ways. But also, when you talk about the world of work, I would hope that most people want to be invested in what they do and bring their ideas. Where those two things meet, that is where I have spent a lot of my time, these last number of years.

David Green: Wow. I love the way the academic and the, probably not that fun actually for certainly for your wife at the time, reasons came together. Obviously you have done a lot of work around employee voice.

I have heard you talk about leadership in terms of the heart and the head, can you explain what you mean by that? And what your approach is to developing good leaders, unlike that manager your wife had the misfortune to work for.

Ethan Burris: In most of my classes, I do end up talking about the heart and head of leadership. Especially within the classroom, teaching concepts of leadership I would say, that it is a challenging topic. That is because, I will tell you about our graduate students, our MBA’s, typically they are 29 to 32 years old. They have had 7 to 10 years of work experience and what that means is, they are walking into the classroom, like it or not, with some form of thoughts about what leadership is. It is not like they are taking a class in molecular biology and have no background, in terms of what that content area is. Every one of those students has had a boss, has interacted with many bosses, and have probably been in a leadership position themselves where they have tried to enact their own philosophy or approach for how they would lead.

So we talk very specifically, on the first day of class, about those philosophies. Everyone has one, you have an approach, an assumption, about what it takes to lead and you look for those attributes in your leaders. You emulate that in your own approach. These theories, these approaches, have consequences because if someone behaves in a way that is inconsistent with what, is in your head for an appropriate course of action as a leader, it impacts your relationship and how much you engage with that particular person. What I mean by the heart, is we have these approaches and philosophies and I spend a lot of time, both in the classroom and of course with executives, talking about and trying to articulate exactly what it means. What are the values you hold dear, for you as a leader?

The head part is everything people analytics, because it takes those philosophies and approaches and sees the policies that you create as a result and the analytics piece is nothing more than a test, to see if your approach actually holds water. And so if you have approach for compensation, or approach around what it takes to build and lead a team, and you really believe in that team synergy and this notion that it is important for individuals to contribute to the team as a whole and worry less about their individual performance or contributions. Well, that should impact a philosophy around compensation and evaluation.

So now we should be able to put some numbers around that to say, if we change our performance evaluation process, or our compensation process, to align with your philosophy about successful team leadership and management, does that actually work for your environment? Can we test that statistically? And now we can start to make some policy adjustments from there.

And so what I try to do again, both inside and outside the classroom, is have a heavy balance of both. We need to articulate what our philosophies are and also be present enough in order to test that, to see if we are right.

David Green: And you have been applying that, both in the academic sense, but as you mentioned in your introduction, you have spent a lot of time working with big companies like Microsoft and Google. I have seen some of the work that you published around some of the studies you have done at Microsoft, plus your academic work at the university.

I would be really interested to hear about how you make that link between the detailed and academic research studies that you work on and then what this means in the real world?

Ethan Burris: I think the simple and short answer is, it takes a lot of time in developing the relationships with those field partners. Most of those successful partnerships, it has taken a couple of years to understand their business, even before we started data collection. That is not always the norm, but I say that as an example, because often it takes time. It takes time to understand the nuances of the culture, the context, the work that is being done, and then we can start to talk about how some of these underlying dynamics may show up. Then to design surveys, interventions, we can do some interviews, to then start to see what data that we can assemble to be able to showcase that in an interesting way and what insights we can learn. I would say the first, really succinct answer is, it takes time and that approach, that the value of research is not just living in the academic world and in our academic journals, we are in an applied field and so we should be looking to shape policy and practice in some way. And I usually go into my partnerships with that type of ideal in mind.

David Green: Obviously you have mentioned Google, which is one of the most advanced companies when it comes to people analytics, which is a shared passion. Microsoft is another.

Have you noticed, again, you don’t need to name names here, but have you noticed when you go into organisations that have maybe less maturity in people analytics and lesser data approach to people management, do you notice big differences between those types of companies and with the likes of Microsoft and Google, for example?

Ethan Burris: So certainly there is sophistication around data and is quite a bit different. I would say probably, the first part is the infrastructure around data architecture. So, how is the data assembled? Where is it housed? How is it accessed? What are the rules in place, in terms of privacy and the different departments, managers, or leaders that have access, not only to the raw data, but even some of the summaries, tables, and reports for those data? Most of the organisations that are a bit more advanced in this space, have put a lot of thought into how those data are assembled and then ultimately accessed and used.

But in terms of generating insights, once you have the data assembled in someplace, then it is just a matter of running those statistics and answering questions that are most relevant for the sponsoring leader, executive et cetera. And so I would say, all of the companies that I have worked with, no matter if they are really advanced or not, are really interested in answering questions. Certainly over the last two years and where we are now, with coming out of this pandemic, what does hybrid return to physical office, what does that look like? And how do we manage our people in teams, in relationships, and across different parts of the organisation, that need to be in collaboration together, what is a thoughtful and purposeful way of going about doing that?

Every company, no matter if they have a sophisticated data architecture in place or not, is asking those questions. And now it becomes a challenge of, okay if we want to be thoughtful in answering those questions, what data do we need to assemble? Do we already have it? Or, do we need to devise something brand new, in order to provide some answers as it relates to policy refinement and recommendations?

David Green: And those companies that have invested in creating that sophisticated capability around people analytics, again without having to name names, are they equipping their leaders so that they can have a much better balance of managing with the heart and the head?

Then for companies without the data, then it is all about gut reaction, gut decision-making, and the heart I guess, as you can’t use the head because you haven’t got the data.

Ethan Burris: Yup. So to me, what I hear you saying is, what is the feedback loop?

So if you think about the people analytics function and what it does, certainly a lot of it is about data collection. What are the right questions to ask? What are the right sources of data we can pull together? How do we merge across them so eventually we can start to run some analysis and tell some insights?

Then the second piece is, well what analytics do we actually need to run? What questions are we trying to answer, given the data we have?

Once we have those insights, now comes a question of who is the audience? Is it leaders? If you are talking about compensation, most lower level managers don’t need great swaths of data and reports on compensation policy, but leaders at the top of the organisation, absolutely do.

And so thinking about the right audience for who needs to know these insights in order to make changes within the organisation is certainly there. And then lastly, what are the dashboards or feedback mechanisms? So if you are giving a presentation to your senior executive team and that’s it, does this need to live on an online dashboard that is routinely updated, given new swaths of data that is coming in. Are you actually constructing reports, think about the once or twice a year survey, are you constructing reports for each lower level manager that has at least 5 or 10 employees underneath and now they are getting some insights about their own team in relation to the averages, or the norms, across the whole company.

And so, going through this process, you have to because you have to think about, how are you going to use these insights in a way to inform changes in the organisation somehow? Are managers changing their behaviour? What policies from a higher level do you need to refine in order to generate improvements?

David Green: Makes perfect sense to me.

You have been working with a lot of these companies on the topic of your employee voice, we previewed that earlier on. And when you have written about this topic, you have looked at it through the eyes of the employee speaking up, but also from the perspective of the manager receiving feedback.

Let’s look at each of those in turn and let’s start with the employee speaking up. How should employees give feedback to their supervisors, their managers, or sell ideas up the chain of command? What do they need to consider? And, what is the most effective way to do this?

Ethan Burris: Sure. So I will give the classic professor answer, which is, it depends. In most of the articles I have written and certainly when I talk about it in the classroom, we start listing out a whole bunch of different tactics.

You can think about, do you want to speak up alone or with a group? Do you want to speak up publicly in a meeting or privately, one-on-one in your office or your bosses office? Do you want to speak up at work or do you want to take your boss out to coffee and get away from the office? And so there are a lot of these tactics that are just dependent on you and you alone. What feels most comfortable for you? Does getting out of the office and the busy-ness there, if this isn’t a public display, does that feel safer for you in doing so? Are you the type of person that wants to bring a lot of justification for whatever your idea is that you are trying to socialise? So lots of data, lots of reports, lots of evidence for what you are trying to trying to pitch.

The most recent article that I wrote, again this stems from research that goes back to my dissertation, what I try and argue is for employees to get out of their own heads and to not think about what is most comfortable for them. And I think most people, when you have an idea that you think is great and you would like the organisation to change X, Y, or Z, mostly our tendency is to have the idea pop in our head and for it to immediately come out of our mouth. It is my idea, I should vocalise it, then everyone will see the benefits of what I have to say, and then things will move on. I will get recognition and rewards and things like that.

The problem is that this concept of voice, is not just dependent on you as the employee. The whole reason why to me, voice is such an interesting concept is, it is about things that employees cannot resolve on their own. You need to speak up, to someone else, who has the power and authority to take action and make changes. Usually you start with your direct supervisor, but that can go on up the chain of command, so to speak. And because there is this dependency, you need to convince someone else to make these changes. Now, all of a sudden, it is a really interesting dynamic and you have to think about how your idea is going to resonate with that manager who is on the receiving end.

And so, going back to those couple examples I noted earlier, if you are going to speak up and bring a team of people with you, this is like storming the castle and saying this idea is great, look how many people agree with me. Imagine being on the receiving end of that tactic. And now all of a sudden you have not just one person, but an overwhelming majority of your team members, coming to you and saying, this has got to change.

That can be persuasive in one way, but that can also be really threatening in another. So you could see how managers may not always react in the most positive way, even though that tactic from the employee seems like it is a great idea. I will give another example, just in terms of language and how you pitch ideas.

If you think back to the last idea that you had, is this something you are going to pitch as something that is brand new, it is a shiny new object, and if only we take action, this is something that is going to be lovely for the organisation to do and accomplish. You can also take that same nugget of an idea and pitch it very differently. If we don’t take action on this now, here is all the impending harm that will come to our organisation.

I will give you a very quick example of a decision point that we are facing right now, as a business school. Historically, we have spent most of our time, attention, and resources, around in-person degree programs. So if you are going to come for an MBA, you come to Austin, Texas, on our campus, spend time in our buildings for two years and then graduate. Well, these last two years, we have operated in an online and hybrid format. Should we offer an online or hybrid type of degree program? We can take that idea and pitch it as, well, if only we did this, here are all the great things that could happen. Serve new students, different revenue sources for the school, et cetera, et cetera.

We can also take that same idea and say, our competitors are already moving in this space and if we don’t join them, we are going to be left behind. That is if we don’t take action, here is all the harm.

So I want you to think through and just recognise, what is your natural tendency? The last time you pitched an idea, what did you do? Same idea, those two different choices.

Some of the surprising findings that came out of this, was most people end up mixing those two frames together. Here is the bad stuff we are doing now and here is something new that we can do different. When you mix those frames together, those ideas are supported the least because they are not as effective at resonating with your target audience, your one manager. So you want to pick one dominant frame, either the new opportunity or the threat. And the question is which one?

There is a personality factor called regulatory focus, in short it is a concept around, are you a person who plays to win or plays not to lose? Are you a person who jumps in headfirst and figures out the details later? Or, are you a person that is very cautious, wants to lineup everything first before acting? Are you a person who the worst mistake is an action that is not taken, or the worst mistake is acting and having it be wrong? So you can see where I am going with this, depending on which personality your boss is, that should determine which framing of the idea that you should use. We find that it is in order of between a 10 and 30% delta in the amount of endorsement and support the manager provides, if that framing matches their personality. And so this is what I mean about employees getting out of their own head. I have my tendency, I am a bit more, what is called promotion focused, I am a play to win type, I love the new shiny objects and new ideas, but if I am going to take this and sell this up the chain of command to someone else, I need to think about how that message is going to resonate with them. Most of what is written in that last article, goes through a number of different tactics about getting out of your head and into your managers.

David Green: And as you said, sometimes you might have to take it up several layers, so it pays to understand each of those people and you might pitch the story completely differently, depending on the recipient.

Ethan Burris: I think stereotypically about most organisations, a marketing department is usually always oriented towards the new. What is next. Legal and compliance, probably more on a hesitation and a little bit more conservative side.

So if you have an idea that requires buy in from both departments, you may not want to pitch one idea, in the same meeting with both groups. Think about splitting up that audience and constructing different pitches.

David Green: Fascinating stuff, I love science, this is great. And now we are going to move to the manager, so I think, the safety part probably comes in here, as well as others. If we think about the manager responding to feedback, what do leaders need to do to make sure they are creating the right environment, where employees feel comfortable coming to them with feedback?

Ethan Burris: I think the first thing to really acknowledge is, what are you trying to solve for? If you are trying to create a culture where employees routinely come to you with ideas and feedback, and this is important information that you may not otherwise get. So think about it, as you move up the hierarchy in most organisations, you move from a person who is actually on the front lines doing the work. You are making the widgets, you are interacting with suppliers, buyers, customers, you are getting feedback across all this stuff.

As you get promoted, all of a sudden you are doing the managing. You are managing the other people who are doing the work and as a result, you have less access to that, on the ground information and experiences about what needs to actually get changed.

Certainly as you move further up in the organisation, the less attached you can become.

So again, there is still that dependency there. You need to know this stuff yet it is also hard to hear some of that feedback.

So how do you set up a culture that those folks, not only feel comfortable coming to you routinely, but it is also worthwhile? What I mean by that is, it actually leads to change, that they see some success of their efforts in trying to vocalise their ideas. So those are the two main mechanisms that we are solving for. Get people to feel comfortable, or psychologically safe, and make them feel that it is worthwhile.

Once we have those two things in mind, all of a sudden we can look at different tactics and we can look at some that, at least on the surface seem great, but don’t actually solve those two main issues and so they are not as effective. These are things that I often call half-hearted attempts. So they might have an open door policy, you say you have an open door, you can literally leave your door open and invite employees in, but it takes a level of proactivity on their part, to cross that threshold into your office in order to deliver that feedback. And that may not always be the most comfortable of endeavours. As a result, I have never heard a manager say I have a closed door policy. So just because you say you have an open door policy, that doesn’t actually resonate in a way that is going to change how safe someone feels coming into your office, you have to do something more than that.

Another quick example is an anonymous suggestion system or hotlines. If that is your only way to get feedback, if you send out an anonymous surveys all the time, Hey, I want to hear your unvarnished truth about what you think about this, that, and the other? But you never follow up and have an additional conversation about that feedback, then from the employee’s point of view, the only way they can give the feedback is if they are truly anonymised and no one knows who they are. It is a reminder that they can’t have that conversation face to face, that they shouldn’t feel comfortable doing it in that venue.

So again, those are just a couple examples of tactics I often see managers take, yet they don’t actually solve the psychological safety issue and therefore is not quite as effective.

So some quick tactics that I have found to be more effective. One of the things that I started talking about a lot, and this comes in as a result directly in partnership with Microsoft. I think you have had Dawn Klinghoffer, on your podcast before, so a wonderful partner there.

They started talking about what they call, the employee listening ecosystem. If you think about all the different ways employees can offer feedback, certainly anonymous suggestion hotlines is one, but now you have your annual or biannual engagement survey, that is another mechanism. You have monthly, weekly, or daily pulses, again other types of surveys to get that feedback. As managers, you also have face-to-face opportunities. I was working with the general manager from a call centre, an insurance company, he deployed what he called “cookie chats” Every Friday afternoon, about three o’clock, the phones died down and he just put a plate of cookies out in the conference room and just sat there and watched everyone come in, grab a cookie. You would shoot the breeze, hear their feedback from the week, and it was just a routine, very informal way of getting a pulse on things.

There is exit surveys, internal mobility surveys, onboarding surveys around different employment life cycles, there is chat and message boards internally. So what I encourage you to do is not think about the one tactic to get feedback, think about the ecosystem that is in place and how you are assembling all that feedback in a thoughtful and purposeful way. So that you can identify trends, identify hotspots and then take action and be able to follow up on that fairly quickly.

David Green: Yeah and I think also what we are starting to see with companies, Microsoft is a good example of this, whether it is active ways of soliciting feedback. Actually looking at some, I think Microsoft, calls it ambient and others call it passive ways, looking at anonymised and aggregated of course, but looking at chat on company intranet, public forums, looking at email data, calendar data, not the content obviously, but looking at the traffic between people on social media, because everyone has been using tools like this, like Zoom, and on Teams, obviously at Microsoft, for the last two years. And actually town halls have been like this, so actually analysing some of the questions that are getting asked and some of the sentiment that is coming out of it, can give you quite a lot of really good data and a pretty good view.

Ethan Burris: It is an explosion of data and this movement into this hybrid format and technology enabled collaboration, there is a lot of data that are there, that are naturally captured, and with some of the tools you just mentioned, it gives us different avenues and strategies to analyse those data and generate insights that go well beyond just surveys. And so I think that is what you are referring to, is through the natural avenues of collaboration we can capture sentiment, how inclusive language is that people use, and then start to track that to survey responses and ultimately operational, financial, sets of outcomes that people care about.

David Green: On the manager side, obviously it is not just about being open to feedback and looking at a myriad of ways of getting feedback, as a manager, you have got to give feedback as well. I would love to hear your thoughts on some of the things that managers should be considering when giving, sometimes candid feedback to employees, where they obviously don’t want to damage the relationships that they have built and they obviously don’t want to damage the comfort that you talked about, so that people feel safe to actually give feedback to them as well.

Ethan Burris: You are right, thus far, we have mostly been talking about upward feedback. So speaking up in organisations and how to organise around some of those dynamics. If you look at that a little bit more broadly, that is just a study of how to be candid at work, how to be honest. One of the things I always like to say, I do think that if people were just a little bit more honest in general, at work and even outside, things could be a little bit more productive. And so you can take that notion of honesty and candour and then flip it and look at downward feedback. So what are leaders doing to be honest and candid with their employees and their teams, in order to improve performance? Much the same as there is some tension and difficulty in relaying honest and candid feedback upward, managers and leaders also face similar types of challenges and tensions in telling the truth to their employees in a number of ways. I do think the tension is different and they are balancing a couple of different things, but that tension is still there. I will give an example, in this context, I had a former student of mine, her dissertation was on how leaders can tell their employees no. So when you respond to voice, when you respond to all these ideas, you can’t say yes to everything. If you create this culture of safety and have a thousand ideas come your way, there is no way you can implement them all. You have to be choosy. There is only so much time and resources to do that.

So, how do you then say no? How do you be honest and candid about some ideas not being pushed through, in a way that still keeps those employees engaged and excited about coming back again with another idea? And so what she found through a series of interviews, is managers really balance two different things.

The first, is providing diagnostic feedback. Why is this idea not going through? Why are you not performing as well as you could? How are you, in the way you are interacting, creating tension within the team that is a bit dysfunctional? Providing that diagnostic feedback is instructive, it is informational, it helps a person to develop.

But the second piece that you are optimising for is not just cognitive and what you need to do, the second piece is motivational. How do you deliver that feedback in a way that gets people excited about doing something different?

And oftentimes, those two things are in tension with one another. So if you can imagine for a second, you come to me with an idea and I give you the 42 very diagnostic ways why that idea is not good. It is not terribly motivational, that doesn’t necessarily give you the warm and fuzzies to come back again with another idea.

So it is a balance between those, how are you delivering feedback in a honest and candid way but also sanitising that message in a way that it resonates, that it keeps people engaged and excited, and want to work for you.

David Green: Yeah, a very good point. It is hard being the manager, isn’t it?

Ethan Burris: Not the easiest thing in the world.

David Green: If we think a little bit more broadly about employee voice and employee feedback, we have touched on this already. As I say, one of the trends that we have really seen, during the pandemic, is that increase in employee listening. You talked about companies even doing daily pulses. Microsoft, is a company that is doing a daily pulse, I think to two and a half thousand Microsoft employees, every day. And obviously that has really helped inform them in the various stages of the pandemic, helped shape its approach to hybrid work, days in office, and everything around that, and I think it also really helped them during the racial injustice challenges that came up in 2020. Obviously they have always been there, but it really fired up obviously with the George Floyd murder. What has your research suggested that companies should be thinking about when trying to get feedback from employees at scale? So we have talked about how employees can give feedback to managers, managers can solicit feedback from employees, but what about at scale? And, how has this changed, if it has changed, during the pandemic?

Ethan Burris: I think it is a great question. You are right, a lot of the things we have talked about thus far, is really about those psychological dynamics between the manager and his or her employees.

When you start asking this question from a policy standpoint, across a large number of people within an organisation, I do think it starts to bring up different sets of dynamics and policy implications. I think the first is going back to that notion of an ecosystem. So you can’t just rely on practicing managers to informally get this feedback and relay those messages up the chain of command. So that is where deploying some of these surveys at scale, can be really useful to identify some of those themes and such. I also think it brings to question different sets of analysis than what managers may analyse on their own. As a manager, if you are trying to create that environment with one employee, you can get some feedback from that one employee and perhaps you know that one person because you have developed that relationship over a period of time, you know what is on their mind and what is not. When you are starting to look at this at scale, across a hundred thousand employees, now, all of a sudden, you can do different sets of analyses across employees. What are the topics that employees routinely speak up about? What are those hot button issues? But also, what are the topics that they don’t, what are you missing out on? And again, at least for me, is some of the surprising research that has been shown about the last 10, 15, years on this, is this notion of speaking up as a behaviour that you can measure. How often do you speak up? Never to always. That is not the same as, how often do you withhold an idea? And so you can have high levels of voice and also high levels of silence, or high levels of withholding. As you start to ask those questions across discreet topic areas, what we have seen is that there are pretty material differences. So let me explain. If you are going to ask someone, how often do you speak up about your task, your job, your ability to accomplish your work? Usually it is high levels of voice and medium to low levels of withholding. If there are things that prevent you from being effective at your work, people tend to vocalise that more readily.

Speaking of George Floyd and issues of race and diversity, if you start to ask questions around speaking up about diversity, equity, inclusion, issues at work, all of a sudden voice starts to come down. People don’t speak up nearly as often and withholding also goes up.

And so, as you start to look across different sets of topics, your task, your ability to coordinate with others, team dynamics, your relationship with your boss, senior leadership team, the strategic direction of the organisation, your compensation, D&I issues, I can go on and on. And what we found is there are topics where people feel very comfortable speaking up and there are topics that they don’t. And so you can’t just ask blanketly, how often do you speak up? Or, how comfortable are you? Because that glums all these different topic areas together. If there are issues that you think are bubbling up, you have to be able to ask about those topics because there are different drivers, or different ways for people to feel more or less comfortable about some topics, that are just not relevant for others. Then of course, what you can do to action on that, is getting that feedback in the first place. To me, coming out of this hybrid environment where we haven’t had those opportunities to develop the similar types of relationships that we have in person, to me, one of my fears is we are not really having similar opportunities to hear what is actually on people’s minds, what they are actually dealing with, and therefore the types of policies, routines, and practices that we should be devoting more resources towards.

David Green: And before I get to that last question, I think what you have just talked about there, about doing that listening at scale and understanding what people will speak up about and won’t speak up about. This is where having a people analytics team is so important, so you can actually do that analysis.

Your research has shown, I remember the article you co-authored with Elizabeth McClure and Dawn Klinghoffer, where you looked at some analysis from Microsoft, but actually when you provide that climate, that safe environment for people, for employees, to speak up, then companies benefit from it. This is worth doing, isn’t it?

Ethan Burris: Oh, I will take that one example and broaden out. I have talked for the last, almost 45 minutes, hour, about the benefits of voice. If people speak up, it gives leaders the opportunity to take action, to launch new products and services, to improve collaboration patterns, to address problems in the work environment. Those should be good. I think also across a number of countries, the notion of a democracy and everyone having a voice, is a virtue that we all hold. To feel that you have been heard is a good thing.

And I think in a lot of ways, this concept of voice is something that is almost universally laudable, but that is not what the data show and that is not what we have found.

Voice is only good if action is taken. So if you speak up and nothing is done, at least our research has shown, that is worse than if you were never given that opportunity in the first place. And so the role of the people analytics function, in a lot of ways in my mind, is to be thoughtful and purposeful in providing ways for the organisation to action on the feedback that is given by employees.

Once you collect the data, there should be a good functioning system to take those insights and do something different and again, most importantly, communicate those changes back to employees so that they feel empowered and invested in their voice, in the first place.

So it is nuanced. Yes, that voice matters, but only if action is taken and people see those changes.

David Green: So, Ethan, last question and this is the one we are asking everyone on this series. What do you believe to be the two or three, things that HR will need to do to really add business value as we, hopefully, come out of the pandemic in the coming months?

Ethan Burris: I am a big believer in the value of slowing down and taking a pause. And what I mean by that is not just the mindfulness and wellness stuff, yes, that is great and there is a lot of work on that. But I think, more than ever coming out of the pandemic and through the pandemic, the pace of work has heightened. Everyone feels not only burnout, but busier than ever, and busy doing things that just take longer.

It takes longer to form relationships. It takes longer to make decisions. It takes longer to do everything, yet we still need to move at a similar pace to what we did before, which means we are all overworked and busy.

If we can slow down, take a pause, and be purposeful about what questions are important? What insights do we need? What actions are we prepared to take? And, what resources do we need to accomplish that?

When you start asking those questions and then organise sets of activities around those, it can not only slow things down, I actually think it can create a better experience and environment for people to work with.

David Green: I am all for stopping to run at a hundred million miles an hour. I think that is a really good way to to end our conversation, Ethan, I know that we are coming up to time.

Thanks so much for being a guest on the podcast, I know that this is going to be an episode that is going to resonate with a lot of our listeners.

Can you let listeners know how they can stay in touch with you, follow you on social media, and find out more about your work?

Ethan Burris: So the easiest thing, Google my name, I am on LinkedIn. I am not the most social person in the world, I don’t do a ton of postings, but a lot of the research and findings every once in a while I do hit up some articles, mostly on LinkedIn, sometimes on Twitter. Other than that most of my work in the public sphere, is published in The Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, and then a couple of pieces in the Times and some other places. You can certainly look up my contact info on The University of Texas, and I am certainly looking, not only for collaborations in my own sphere, but we have a number of faculty within our department that are doing work in similar areas and would be excited for continued partnerships there.

David Green: Brilliant and Ethan, I am hoping that we will see each other again in person, at some point, probably at a conference somewhere in the US, hopefully in the not too distant future. So thanks very much for being a guest on the show.



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Culturati Team

Culturati Team

Culturati is a community of CEOs, entrepreneurs, investors and other c-suite leaders who practice & study culture building and share our play books.