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The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice

Sarah Layman, DCI; Jen Harvel, Amazon; & Apryl Brodersen, Metropolitan State University of Denver

 

 “The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice” is a TIP column that seeks to help facilitate additional learning and knowledge transfer to encourage sound, evidence-based practice. It can provide academics with an opportunity to discuss the potential and/or realized practical implications of their research as well as learn about cutting-edge practice issues or questions that could inform new research programs or studies. For practitioners, it provides opportunities to learn about the latest research findings that could prompt new techniques, solutions, or services that would benefit the external client community. It also provides practitioners with an opportunity to highlight key practice issues, challenges, trends, and so forth that may benefit from additional research.

In this issue, Marisa Rosen discusses the factors that impact employee willingness to speak up over time in their organizations. The goal of this column is to provide empirically based advice to help managers foster a culture of employee voice and support.

 

Encouraging Voice Over Time

Marisa A. Rosen
OrgVitality

Introduction

Organizations can and should make efforts to create an environment where people feel safe to speak up, but they also must close the loop on employees’ ideas. Closing the loop is an underutilized way organizations can build retention because it demonstrates support and appreciation of employees’ ideas, even if implementing certain ideas is not possible. Managers and supervisors are an important extension of the organization and as such are a critical component of accomplishing this task. This column focuses on the research and practice of how managers can support employees’ voice over time and, ultimately, help retain their employees.

What Is Voice?

People are a large, often untapped, source of information in organizations. They have innovative ideas and see solutions to organizational problems. Both are examples of two distinct types of voice behaviors necessary for any organization’s longevity (Liang et al., 2012). The goal of speaking up (or “voice”) is for employees to innovate and solve problems that promote the success of the business (Van Dyne & LePine, 1998).

However, speaking up often challenges the status quo and is inherently risky (Morrison, 2014). People may be afraid of their manager’s reaction when posing ideas (Detert & Edmondson, 2011), especially those that identify problems (Wei et al., 2015). Interestingly, some evidence suggests apathy may be more common than fear (Hao et al., 2022). That is, if employees lack the confidence that their voice will result in change, they may feel it is pointless to say anything at all (Sherf et al., 2021) and lead them to leave (Knoll & van Dick, 2013).

Feeling unsafe or powerless to speak up are examples of barriers to a single instance of speaking up (Morrison, 2023). Research is now uncovering the iterative nature of speaking up, thus understanding how to encourage employees to speak up throughout their tenure is crucial (Kim, Lam, et al., 2023). Once an employee speaks up, several environmental factors can influence their decision to do so in the future (e.g., King et al., 2019). Creating a climate where employees feel comfortable speaking up over time is a business imperative from both an innovation and employee retention perspective.

Step 1: Promoting Voice

Voice Climate

The working environment plays a role in how comfortable employees are speaking up (Chamberlin et al., 2017). Much research on voice climate—or the shared beliefs about how acceptable it is to speak up—shows how positive perceptions predict voice behaviors and performance (Morrison et al., 2011). When employees feel generally encouraged or empowered to speak up, they are more likely to do it (Frazier & Fainshmidt, 2012). However, when situations are uncertain or dissatisfying, employees avoid voicing. For example, when employees perceive a highly political environment in their organization, voice behaviors were likely to decline (Bergeron & Thompson, 2020).

Leaders influence organizational culture and climate and are therefore key to creating a positive working environment (e.g., Morrison et al., 2011). For example, when leaders are authentic, it can help cultivate better employee relationships with the organization when dissatisfying work events occur. These characteristics are important to promoting voice and reducing turnover in organizations (Kim, Lee, et al., 2023). Negative supervisor behaviors (e.g., hostility) are associated with undermining voice climate and decrease subsequent voice behaviors (Frazier & Bowler, 2015). The following sections focus on the relationship dynamic between leaders or managers and people who speak up (or voicers).

Positive Manager Behaviors

Leadership may be one of the best supported tactics that influences voice (Chamberlin et al., 2017). Building trust and psychological safety can help employees feel more comfortable speaking up because both reduce perceived risk (Chamberlin et al., 2017; Hao et al., 2022; Sherf et al., 2021). Managers or supervisors can cultivate safe and trusting environments through developing high-quality relationships within their team (Duan et al., 2019; Gao et al., 2011). Soliciting employee ideas, inspiring their team to innovate, exhibiting ethical behaviors (e.g., respect, fairness, concern, integrity), and demonstrating interest in the employee’s needs and goals are ways managers can develop their relationships (Kim, Lam, et al., 2023). These tactics signal to employees that their manager is willing to listen, values their input, and is more likely to positively respond to their ideas. Skill-, motivation-, and opportunity-enhancing manager behaviors can also help empower employees to speak up (Chamberlin et al., 2018).

Negative Manager Behaviors

Although some manager behaviors can promote good relationships with employees or teammates, there are some that can inhibit these relationships. People value consistency, and when there is a breach in consistency, that creates discomfort and lack of trust (Li et al., 2020). An example of this is the psychological contract, which is the employee’s perception that they are getting what was promised to them when agreeing to work for an organization. If a manager breaks that promise, such as by delaying a promised raise or promotion, then the employee will trust their manager less than before (e.g., Afshan et al., 2021). Under these circumstances, an employee may feel undervalued and may believe contributing their idea is pointless (Wang & Hsieh, 2014). Uncertainty activates similar reactions in us as well. When employees are not sure how managers will react, perhaps because that manager demonstrates self-serving or highly political behaviors, or if the future of their jobs is unclear, employees may feel speaking up is too risky (Bergeron & Thompson, 2020; Kim et al., 2023; Li et al., 2020).

Step 2: Manager Endorsement

Once employees feel safe to speak up, how can they make it more likely their manager will listen to their idea? Most research positions the organization, content, delivery, and timing of the message as key factors.

Status and Tone

Related to status, more expert (Whiting et al., 2012), credible (Lam et al., 2019), and high-status (Howell et al., 2015) employees are more likely to receive positive reactions or endorsement from their managers. In terms of delivery, the tone, expression of respect, friendliness, empathy, and humble language contribute to increasing the likelihood managers will endorse voice (Lam et al., 2019).

Further evidence suggests that tone and status together will influence voice endorsement. Interestingly, higher status individuals, who likely feel more comfortable in their teams, may be more careless with their tone broaching an idea with a manager and prompt a negative response. Lower status individuals, on the other hand, through the support of their team and maintaining a polite tone, tend to receive more positive reactions from managers (Kim et al., 2022). Taken together, this suggests that tone may be more important than status for leader endorsement, and employees can build their credibility over time through speaking up.

Idea Content

The content of ideas, such as perceived importance, resources, and interdependencies necessary to implement an idea, is an important component managers consider when employees speak up. Typically, more complex ideas received less endorsement, so highlighting the importance of the idea can help (Burris et al., 2017). Quality (usefulness, novelty, or practicality of ideas) plays a role too. Intuitively, high-quality ideas lead to positive peer and supervisor evaluations of the voicer. Low-quality ideas lead to more negative evaluations, and that outcome is exaggerated when the low-quality ideas are shared often, leading to perceptions of incompetence. Getting initial feedback on an idea could help ensure it is high quality and will be well received (Brykman & Raver, 2021). If a peer publicly endorses an employee’s idea, this can also aid perceptions of idea quality (Bain et al., 2021). Presenting a solution along with feedback helps with likability and performance evaluations (Whiting et al., 2012).

Relationship Context

The relationship an employee and manager have matters for manager endorsement. Relationships with higher quality exchanges and trust increase the likelihood of endorsement (Kim, Lam, et al., 2023). Sometimes those relationships are not possible, as such tailoring of how you speak up can help with endorsement. In close relationships between employees and their manager (defined in terms of demographic and spatial similarity), voicing colloquially or explaining how an idea could be executed increases the chances voice will be endorsed. In contrast, in more distant relationships (more dissimilarity), speaking politely or explaining why an idea could be useful leads to greater endorsement (Schreurs et al., 2020). Managers decipher tone (e.g., colloquial vs. polite) and content (e.g., explaining how vs. why) of voice in the context of their relationships, which influences their endorsement of ideas.

Timing

Timing plays a role too. When employees speak up earlier in a project’s life cycle, the idea may be more usable compared to bringing up an idea or solution later in the project (Whiting et al., 2012). Evidence suggests the type of message, either innovation or problem focused, has greater impact at different stages of change. When reacting to external change, such as a global pandemic, focusing on more problem-focused voice can help teams correct/prevent errors and improve later performance. Once the team has recovered from the change-induced dips in performance, that is a better time to make innovative suggestions that can help improve team processes over time (Li & Tangirala, 2022). Time and content of messaging matters and employees should consider those contextual factors to improve the likelihood managers will endorse their suggestions.

Step 3: Closing the Loop

Compared to the other research discussed so far, what happens after an idea is endorsed or rejected is much less investigated. What we do know from the limited findings makes sense. When employees’ ideas are endorsed, they speak up more. The opposite is true when ideas are rejected (Brykman & Maerz, 2023). Rejection (or nonendorsement) can be particularly painful for employees who intend to stay with the organization because they care about contributing to the organization’s success (King et al., 2019; Ng et al., 2022). Previous reactions to speaking up clearly matter for voicers’ willingness to do it again in the future.

How Managers Should Reject Ideas

How managers reject ideas matters for future idea generation and employees’ desire to remain at the organization. Managers who provide a sensitive explanation why they cannot endorse an idea help employees feel safe to speak up again in the future. Sensitive explanations communicate respect and consideration that ameliorate the emotional distress from rejection and allow people to move forward in their working relationships (King et al., 2019). Providing social feedback, such as appreciating when employees do speak up, can help encourage voice in the future because it supports engagement (Weiss & Zacher, 2022).

Create a Feedback-Supportive Climate/Culture

In practice, some companies have added stipulations on rejecting ideas. For example, Pixar requires that people provide suggestions or feedback on rejected ideas to continue to innovate and curtail mistakes (Catmull, 2008). Normalizing rejection and providing feedback can help cultivate a company culture where everyone can strive to think of better ideas and solutions (Ng et al., 2022). Related research discussed earlier on voice climate helps support these ideas.

Maintain the Relationship With the Voicer

Although there is limited evidence in this space, finding ways to maintain the relationship with the voicer will likely improve the future rate of speaking up. Employees who feel appreciated and have a trusting relationship with their supervisor are more likely to voice in the future (Kim, Lam, et al., 2023). More research is needed to find specific tactics that will promote future voice, particularly when ideas cannot be endorsed.

Conclusion

Overall, we know more about how to encourage employees to speak up once rather than over time. Researchers and practitioners still need to discover ways to increase positive outcomes from speaking up, including encouraging it in the face of rejection. These findings will have crucial implications for maintaining an engaged workforce. For now, here are some useful, research-based tactics that can help managers believe in employee ideas, make ideas more actionable, and facilitate persistence among employees to speak up. These include:

Conditions for speaking up

Manager

Solicit and listen to employee ideas

 

Be open to suggestions

 

Be interested in your employees’ success

 

Enhance employees’ skills, motivation, and opportunities

 

Empower employees with participative decision making, keeping people informed, and coaching

 

Create trust and psychological safety

 

Dispel employee or teammate reasons for not speaking up

 

Cultivate a climate for speaking up through encouraging voice, providing feedback, and normalizing idea rejection

Increasing the likelihood of endorsement

Voicer

 

 

Get feedback first to manage idea quality

 

Get a peer to endorse your idea

 

Present a solution if you speak up about a problem

 

Manage the delivery of your message (tone, content, language, timing, etc.)

 

Let your status inform how you deliver your message

 

Let your relationship quality with whom you are speaking up to inform how you deliver your message

 

Invest in the relationship with whom you are speaking up to

Closing the loop

Manager

 

 

Provide sensitive explanations when endorsement isn’t possible

 

Be appreciative and supportive when employees do speak up

 

Provide feedback

 

Check on your relationship with the voicer

 

Promote the voicer’s efficacy

 

Be mindful of the ideas you reject—try to implement some employee ideas in an equitable way

 

Encourage people to speak up, even after their idea has been rejected

 

Continue to support a climate for speaking up

Developing your manager–employee relationship

Manager

 

 

Demonstrate ethical behavior (e.g., respect, fairness, concern, integrity)

 

Be authentic

 

Demonstrate interest in the employee’s needs and goals

 

Be consistent with what you say and do

 

Avoid being political or unclear

Voicer

 

 

Build perceptions of competence

 

Avoid threatening manager image

 

Demonstrating other-oriented or community-oriented behaviors

References

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