Ever heard the expression, “Silence is golden?” Well, that may not really be the case when it comes to the workplace. According to an article in the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, employee silence can be a bad sign in a company and, although you may think that silence means everything is running smoothly, in fact, it can mean anything but that.
Author Elizabeth W. Morrison, from the Stern School of Business at New York University, believes employee silence is a real problem. In the article “Employee Voice and Silence,” Morrison defines “voice” in the workplace as informal communication from an employee to someone higher up in the organizational hierarchy, and warns: “If voice is withheld within an organizational context, both performance and employee morale may suffer, so the consequences may be significant. In addition, there is evidence suggesting that voice is in fact stifled in many organizations and that employees are often very hesitant to engage in voice, particularly when the information could be viewed by the recipient as negative or threatening.”
That means that your employees may be fearful of speaking their minds about the company’s operations or policies because they think they will be reprimanded or punished in some way for it. Or they may feel there’s no proper channel for them to voice their opinions. Other factors play into it, such as the company culture and each individual’s personality. But in the kind of environment that doesn’t encourage open communication, employees may begin to resent the company’s leadership as issues and concerns get squashed, fester, and never come to light.
So what can you do to avoid this kind of toxic, silent environment? Here are a few ways you can encourage employees to share their thoughts and ideas and foster open communication in your workplace.
Perhaps the most important thing an employer can do to encourage employees to speak up is to make them feel empowered—that their opinions truly matter and are appreciated. Empowered employees are more engaged and therefore more likely to say what’s on their minds. When employees feel empowered, they know that the leadership in their organization values their opinions, because they understand that they depend on their workers’ being motivated and productive. Empowering employees gives them a sense of pride and responsibility to act as well.
A big reason why employees might be reluctant to share their opinions is that they’re afraid of the consequences. Imagine an employee who sees her supervisor breaking company policy or engaging in troubling behavior. She might not want to say anything out of fear that it will get back to her supervisor, and that he’ll punish her in some way for “telling” on him. If she wasn’t afraid to speak up, this employee’s voice could help save the company a heap of trouble by making the leadership aware of what’s happening so they can take action against the wrongdoer. Dispelling fears of retaliation for speaking up is of the utmost importance if you want to fix these situations before they get out of hand.
When employees work in teams, they actively practice sharing their thoughts and speaking up to accomplish tasks as a group. This gets them used to talking about their work, whether it’s sharing new ideas or concerns, and can be applied on a wider scale to the entire company. Teamwork also works on a psychological level by bringing employees closer together, helping them form bonds to each other and the work, which will help them feel more confident to speak their minds.
It’s also important to make open communication a part of your company culture. When you have a strong company culture that values communication, employees will identify with that common culture and feel more inspired to make a positive difference. This will motivate them to share their opinions about the company because they truly care about its future success. Once current employees get on board—and especially new employees who come in fresh to the company culture—you will have a workforce that is conditioned to speak up and feel like they’re part of something bigger.
Once you get everyone talking, it’s important to make sure the conversation stays productive. The worst thing would be to foster an environment of open communication just to see it muddled by idle gossip and mean-spirited comments. While a silent workforce might be a sign of trouble, so too can an overload of communication become problematic. It’s important to encourage constructive feedback while providing effective ways for employees to share their thoughts and ideas, such as employee surveys, performance reviews, and peer-to-peer recognition.
Do you think it’s important to nurture a culture of open communication in your company? How do you encourage your employees to speak up and share their opinions?
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I really enjoyed reading this article, but I would like to highlight one more thing. Recognizing an employee’s contribution is essential in today’s workplace, and I’m not talking about monetary recognition. A simple “thank you” for taking action regarding certain issues or getting more involved in a project helps to establish an environment that encourages good communication.
When it comes to feedback, I find both written and verbal communication useful. At my company, we had an idea to improve communication: we created a box in which employees can anonymously write their concerns about sensitive issues. At first I was skeptical, but the result was really good – I found out many things that bothered my employees and I was able to solve the problems.
I always question myself about whether employees really feel comfortable discussing issues with me. How do I figure this out? Well, I look at the number of employees that stop by my office and have a real talk with me. Do they come often? Do only managers or team leaders show up? If so, something is not right – I want to encourage all my employees to have the courage to speak up about their issues.
Some managers want employees to speak up publicly about their issues, but they should understand that speaking in a group can be uncomfortable for some people. I really encourage one-on-one talks or casual conversation so that my employees have more ways of expressing their point of view. I like to analyze the way that issues are expressed in both group and individual meetings. If you pay attention to your employees, you’ll notice a big difference in the way they communicate in these two situations.
I think in some fields there is a higher tendency to talk out then in others. I’ve worked in low tech (manufacturing) companies, where the employees were scared to say anything, just to keep their minimum wage job. Where as in high tech and high income salaries, you will know exactly what’s on their mind.