Extensive studies and research in recent years have cemented the notion that having a solid speak-up culture at work generally results in improved outcomes for the organisation in everything from operations to communications and innovation.

However, it seems that the efforts of many organisations to build an effective speak-up culture have been largely unsuccessful with data reporting that most employees still struggle to do so. In fact, a 2020 survey of a group of 6000 employees found that over 60% of them only ever spoke up about a few select issues directly tied to their role and of this number, almost 20% never spoke up at all.

This should be concerning for all employers because the idea of a speak-up culture is not only about employees raising concerns or voicing their dissatisfaction – the employee voice also enables the valuable contribution of their ideas, opinions and thoughts towards forming opportunities for improved efficiency, better work outputs and overall company growth.

To understand what they’re doing wrong in their current approach, employers must first understand the challenges and barriers employees face when speaking up. Doing so will allow the utilisation of targeted strategies that encourage a team environment and employee culture in which workers not only feel they are able to speak comfortably but are encouraged to do so. 

Why a speak-up culture is important

The lack of a speak-up culture in an organisation manifests in a range of consequences and untapped potential that inhibits long-term growth and success.

Some of the detrimental impacts of a limited speak-up culture include:

  • The development of a workplace environment which doesn’t allow for employee input and contribution. Fear of retribution pushes workers to stay quiet and agree with whatever employers or managers say or decide even if they have better ideas.
  • Unethical workplace decisions foster in a workplace where employees aren’t encouraged to speak-up and problematic behaviour, actions or speech go unquestioned and unchallenged, particularly when it comes from those in positions of higher authority.
  • A lack of employee voice reduces the diversity and creativity of overall input in the workplace and results in team decisions that aren’t always the most optimal approach to the task or process at hand. By choosing to not speak up, employees aren’t able to bring their full potential to the table and the employers miss out on making the most of their talent, experience and knowledge.

Barriers to a speak-up culture

Understanding the reasons why an employee might choose to stay silent or speak up in a particular context is difficult and rarely attributed to a single reason alone. Research suggests that employees are more likely to speak up and share their thoughts if they believe their contribution will have a beneficial impact on themselves and their organisation. However, if they believe that their opinions or concerns have the potential to put them at risk in some way, such as subjecting them to workplace discrimination, they are far more likely to remain silent.

This concept of the ‘social threat’ of voicing potentially controversial opinions or concerns and then facing the threat of workplace retaliation, is often cited as the greatest barrier to a thriving ‘speak-up’ culture. This is somewhat inevitable because no matter how strong the speak-up culture of a company is, it cannot grant complete psychological safety to employees who depend on it in order to put themselves in the vulnerable position of voicing a potentially contentious opinion.

Whilst some essence of this ‘social threat’ will always remain due to it inherently being a psychological phenomenon, employers can mitigate its impact significantly by one simple, consistent action; validation. Open validation of the opinions and thoughts of employees who are speaking up will slowly reduce the ear that employees may feel over time – this does not mean you always have to agree with the employee speaking up, but rather showcase that you appreciate their input and take it into consideration. 

investigative interview speak-up culture

The personality vs environment perspective

Two of the key factors often pitted against each other when examining why employees are remaining silent in a certain workplace are personality vs environment. The perspective of ‘personality’ attributes an employee’s reluctance to speak to their inherent personality traits, such as introversion and shyness. In contrast, the perspective of ‘environment’ suggests that the workplace culture is at fault when an employee feels unable to voice their opinions. The workplace environment is thought to be one where the decision to speak up will result in negative social consequences.

Both of these factors can play a role in the organisation simultaneously and understanding their effects can allow you to adapt and guide your strategies accordingly. When dealing with personalities who naturally struggle to speak up, employers can try and combat this with additional employee training or recruitment programs that focus on hiring individuals with a more proactive nature. If however, the issue is in the environment itself, the employer must work on changing the corporate culture to one that actively encourages and values the ideas and thoughts of their employees and considers them seriously.

study conducted by the Harvard Business Review found that both personality and environment had a significant effect on employees’ tendency to speak up with ideas or concerns.  However, it concluded that a strong culture of speaking up where employees were adequately encouraged and supported in doing so, could actually result in employees who didn’t usually speak-up to do so as a result of the environment. This held especially true if there was actually an expectation at work for employees to speak-up and others around them were openly sharing their thoughts without experiencing any repercussions. 

This is actually great news for employers and suggests that if you want employees to speak up, the work environment and the team’s culture can actually allow you to achieve success regardless of any inherent personality barriers. Encouraging and rewarding speaking up can help overcome an employee’s natural hesitancy to speak-up and in turn encourage those around them to follow suit.

To conclude, attempting to establish a successful ‘speak-up’ culture is not an easy endeavour for any organisation. However, consistently working towards a workplace environment where opinions and concerns are shared freely allows employers and employees to communicate better, make decisions faster, and build a more tight-knit culture overall.

Understanding the social threats that inhibit the employee voice and combatting them through actively encouraging such behaviour and rewarding workers for it will allow your organisation to find success when attempting to build a strong speak-up culture.