Workplace Culture: Creating an Environment Where Employees Speak Up
Inclusive leadership means above all building genuine trust between employees and managers. But how does it work?
The term speak-up culture describes an environment in which employees can communicate sensitive topics openly and without fear of negative consequences. Companies benefit from such a culture in several ways: Constructive and honest feedback from employees is often particularly valuable for change management processes. Moreover, smouldering interpersonal conflicts and unsolved cases of misconduct can cause great damage. However, before employees feel that they can openly address issues at work, they often need to build a lot of trust. This is called psychological safety and describes an environment without fear.
What is psychological safety?
Google examined what factors make teams successful, and identified that psychological safety is by far the most important factor for successful teamwork. It may sound easy to take risks in a familiar setting, but remember the last time you sat in a meeting: Did you really feel like you could openly challenge the goal of the project? Did you maybe decide not to ask questions that might cause discomfort or make you look incompetent? Unfortunately, in bad working cultures we often choose self-protection strategies, although they are proven to be detrimental to collaboration and make teamwork more difficult.
Psychological safety has many advantages for business: The safer the members of a team feel, the more likely they are to admit mistakes. They cooperate more frequently and take on more responsibility and new roles. At the same time, the company as a whole also profits from psychological safety. Employees stay with the company longer, are more open to change and innovation, and are significantly more productive.
How do employees act in a speak-up culture?
So how can team leaders tell if there is already a speak-up culture in their company? Some employee behaviours provide a good indication for the level of trust:
- Employees present ideas in meetings that are risky or out of the ordinary.
- If a project fails, the responsible person is able to speak about it publicly and the reasons can be discussed. Learnings are reflected upon.
- Team members contradict their managers and criticize them constructively.
- Employees voluntarily sacrifice time and resources to help a team member.
- There are volunteers for new and unfamiliar tasks.
- In difficult situations or under stress it is well accepted to show emotions and admit weaknesses.
- Employees dare to raise concerns about difficult issues such as unconscious bias, discrimination or bullying.
Usually, however, employees are less open. Studies show that more than half of those who encounter bullying, discrimination or harassment remain silent when they experience discrimination in the workplace.
Why do so many cases go unreported?
Generally, there are two dimensions that play a role in whether people take the risk of talking about inappropriate behaviour at work — the personality of the individual and situational environmental influences. Introverted or shy personalities are naturally less willing to address problems openly. At the same time, the fear of sanctions or “social costs” can also exert a lot of pressure on extroverted persons.
However, studies show that strong norms and expectations influence personality characteristics: When employees fear negative consequences for their reporting, even extroverted employees with a high willingness to take risks avoid reporting grievances.
But also, team members generally express themselves more frequently when they feel they are expected to do so. As soon as a company clearly communicates that it supports a speak-up culture, all personality types address difficult topics more frequently. Therefore, the dimension of situational environmental influences, is far more important than the personality type of the individual employee.
Building a speak-up culture as a company doesn’t happen from one day to the next. It takes time and concrete measures at the organizational and management level. In exchange, companies are rewarded with committed employees who are more likely to stay and perform better in teams.
In the second part of this article on speak-up culture, I will use the “APE model” to explain which three environmental factors can be altered by companies in order to signal psychological safety to their employees and thereby build a sustainable culture of trust.