When Employees Are Afraid to Speak Up, Organizations Suffer

When Employees Are Afraid to Speak Up, Organizations Suffer
From Recruiter - January 3, 2017

It seems pretty obvious: If something is going wrong at work, you should speak up about it.

Unfortunately, very few employees do, according to a new study from training company VitalSmarts.Leadby VitalSmarts Cochairman and Cofounder Joseph Grenny and Vice President of Research David Maxfield, the study found that a scant 1percent of employees feel extremely confident when it comes to voicing their concerns in the workplace at critical moments. Furthermore, a third of employees say their organizations do no promote or support holding crucial conversations.

According to Maxfield, employees avoid voicing concernsat work when they dont feel safe doing so.

Most of the time, the reason [people] fail to speak up is they feel the stakes are so high and other people are so opposed to what they might say that it doesnt feel safe to speak up, he explains.

This insecurity and the employee reticence it engenders are more than corporate inconveniences. According to Maxfield and Grennys research, an employees failure to raise their concerns about a project or workplace situation costs an organizationan average of $7,500 in lost time and resources. Furthermore, the average employee spends more than seven workdays fretting about the problem instead of coming forward with their issues.

In extreme cases, conversation failures as the study calls them can cost companies even more. Maxfield gives one example of a global engineering construction firm losing almost a billion dollars on a project even though engineers working on the project knew it was going to fail. Those engineers simply didnt speak up.

We asked [1,025] people to think of situations like this, and they all came up with situations, Maxfield says, suggesting the problem is widely spread.

As long as employees see it as safer to duck and cover than to speak up, organizations will continuelosing money onfaultyprojects, Maxfield says.These companies are also likely to see higher turnover rates, as environments that make employees feel unsafe in voicing their concerns are also likely to lower morale and engagement.

Its just so easy to stay quiet, Maxfield says. And when you talk to people about it, theyll say, Hey, it wasnt my job to speak up. Im not the boss. As if its only the job of the boss to speak up!

Turning the Tide: Fostering Environments That EncourageCrucial Conversations

If your organization suffers from this problem, the situation is not hopeless. Maxfield says there are a number of things that both individual employees and company leadership can do to turn it around and create the kind of work environment that actively encourages and values employee voices.

On the Individual Level:

1. Reverse Your Thinking

Typically,when faced with risks, we focus on the short-term risks to ourselves at the expense of the long-term, broadly shared risks. According to Maxfield, thats just human nature.

When were faced with a saber-toothed cat, we wont look anywhere but at the saber-toothed cat, he says.

So Maxfields first piece of advice is to reverse your thinking: Instead of focusing on the risks of speaking up, start thinking about the risks ofnot speaking up. Chances are these latter risks are more damaging to more people.

2. Change Your Emotions

By the time most people are fretting over whether or not they should speak up, theyve already been holding the concern inside for long enough that it has begun to fester and turn ugly, Maxfield says.

At this point, they start telling themselves ugly stories about the person they need to speak up to, he continues. So you start to think your boss is an ogre who will explode in anger and fire you on the spot.

Maxfield says youneed to challenge the story youve concocted.Instead, view the person to whom you need to speak as a reasonable, rational, and decent person.

Ask yourself the following question: Why might a reasonable, rational, decent person end up with [a bad project plan]? Maxfield says.Its not that they are evilits probably that they are uninformed, or others havent been frank with them, or someone made an arithmetic mistake.

Once youve convinced yourself to view your boss (or whomever you must speak to) as a reasonable person, youll find the prospect of speaking up much less daunting.

3. Make Others Feel Safe

If you struggle with speaking up, its probably because you feel unsafe doing so. Dont perpetuate that cycle by making other people feel unsafe as well.

The military has a saying: Salute the flag before you disagree with your commanding officer, Maxfield says. What it means is show respect for their role, position, and point of view. At the same time, when you salute the flag, youre reminding them that you serve under the same flag. You want what they want.

Approach difficult conversations the same way. Frame your concerns in terms ofproject or organizational success. Make it clear that youd like to share your concernsout of respect and a mutual desire for success.

4. Invite Dialogue


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