Teams in which employees feel comfortable and like to take risks are more successful. And so are leaders who encourage their employees to speak up. It doesn’t matter whether the employees name a mistake or share a new idea with the team.
In social science, this type of environment is referred to as “psychologically safe”. Such an environment accelerates innovation and is also a way to prevent major problems that may arise in the future. A study published in the Journal of Accounting Research in July 2020 shows that active feedback systems in organizations are even associated with fewer lawsuits against these companies.
But even for seasoned leaders, creating a psychologically safe environment can be challenging. Hemant Kakkar, assistant professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, says employees are often afraid of negative consequences from managers. Even if there is no specific indication that it could affect them, many employees do not speak out about it.
We asked Kakkar as well as another professor and a consultant how to establish a work culture in which employees are happy to express themselves.
Creates opportunities to exchange feedback
It is not enough to mention at every staff meeting: “We welcome feedback”. Employees need to know who to talk to and how to reach them. That means you should also make time for regular one-on-one meetings with your co-workers, says Ethan Burris, professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.
Burris said these one-on-one meetings should be “sacred time,” and it helps when employees don’t struggle to spend time with a leader. Another option, says Burris, is to have office hours that anyone on the team can attend.
As a manager, you should also ask for feedback from employees in all possible work areas and experiences, says Burris. An annual employee engagement survey provides little more than a picture of how employees feel on the day they fill out the questionnaire. Instead, managers could ask employees for feedback immediately after they have been hired, promoted, or reviewed.
A neutral contact person could also be an option
“For every employee,” says Burris, “there are now several points of contact.” And the employees can express themselves immediately if something has gone wrong – instead of waiting for the annual survey when they may have forgotten about it.
Another way to make it easier for employees in this regard is to have a relatively impartial contact person to talk to.
The Hilton hotel brand was named one of the world’s most ethical companies in 2020 by the Ethisphere Institute. The hotel brand has a “Team Member Relations” group that takes care of questions or conflicts from employees.
The Team Member Relations group is made up of independent consultants and is “autonomous,” said Laura Fuentes, HR director at Hilton. Fuentes wrote in an email that the group “can effectively balance the needs of team members with those of the company.”
Thanks and rewards employees who give their opinion
A recent report from Bloomberg by Matt Robinson and Benjamin Bain says the US Securities and Exchange Commission received 31 percent more reports of white-collar crime in the fiscal year ended September 30, 2020 than in the previous fiscal year.
Violations include possible financial data disclosure violations and misdirected assets, according to Bloomberg. It is noticeable that, according to the stock exchange supervisory authority, the upswing began in March, when the corona pandemic hit the USA and many companies sent their employees home.
That’s probably because it’s logically easier to report your employer to the stock exchange regulator when you’re not sitting next to a colleague, Bloomberg reports. And because some employees could question their loyalty to their employer now that they no longer work in one place.
In order to prevent employees from feeling that they have to do such things behind the back of their employer, bosses should publicly praise those employees who report this misconduct internally.
Managers set the tone within the work culture
Managers set the tone within the work culture, according to Liz Fosslien, manager at Humu. Humu is a company that combines data science and behavior change research to help companies build better jobs. “Positive reinforcement,” she added, “is a great way to shape a culture and motivate behavior.”
Humu sends executives daily cues reminding them to make sure, for example, that everyone on their team feels involved in a meeting. Such a notice also reminds managers, for example, to publicly honor an employee who has shared his or her perspective.
“Especially if he took a risk by sharing it,” says Fosslien. In this way, other employees know that this behavior is valued and are more likely to emulate him or her.
Show your employees that their voice matters
Some employees may hesitate because they are not sure whether someone is actually interested in their opinion.
In the “Harvard Business Review”, Burris and James R. Detert, professors at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, write about the results of surveys of more than 3,500 employees in various companies. They found that employees were 30 percent more likely to believe their voices were useless if no one told them otherwise.
Therefore, according to Kakar, executives have to let their employees know that they take employee concerns seriously. When seeking feedback, a manager might mention other situations in which an employee has given his or her opinion and something positive came out of it. “Even if [die Führungskraft] did not like the idea, the person did not face any negative consequences. Or the person was promoted, ”said Kakkar. “There is always a better way to motivate people.” Even if employees come with more positive feedback, managers should take note of it.
At Hilton, Fuentes said, some of the most popular employee programs came out of the annual survey. During the pandemic, for example, Hilton introduced voluntary work breaks and voluntarily reduced working hours at the request of employees. “We read and analyze every comment,” says Fuentes.
Don’t be alarmed when employees start reporting more problems
Rising rates of internal feedback or complaints, Burris said, doesn’t necessarily mean things are getting worse. It is also possible that the employees simply feel more comfortable saying something now.
Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, pioneered the study of psychological safety. In a 1999 study, Edmondson found that the most psychologically stable medical teams made the most mistakes. This seemed like a contradicting finding, until Edmondson realized that these teams were just more willing to report and learn from their missteps – rather than sweeping them under the rug like other teams.
Ultimately, employees expect management to be acceptable to speak up – and that their feedback can make a difference in how the company approaches processes.
This text has been translated from English. You can find the original here.