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Create a workplace where everyone feels comfortable speaking up

It’s important for employees to express concern when they see something disturbing. Here’s how to make everyone understand that their voice is valued.

For three months in 2014, Mona Weiss was in the hospital, surrounded by anesthesiologists, nurses, and surgeons. She was there not for treatment, but for her own research.

Weiss was studying an aspect of organizational psychology known as employee voice — the phenomenon of workers speaking up when they see or hear something that troubles them. In any given workplace, there are people with lesser voice (those who largely keep to themselves) and others with greater voice (those who usually make their thoughts known).

Weiss’s study sought to illuminate why people do or do not use their voice in the workplace. She enlisted 27 physicians and 27 nurses to pair up and execute three mock surgeries on a high-tech, lifelike dummy. In two surgeries, the nurses and physicians had to react only to patient complications, which third-party anesthesiologists controlled in a separate room. In the third surgery, a surgeon who knew the premise of the study purposely made fatal errors, to see whether they would prompt action from the physicians and nurses.

As all this was happening, three cameras in the operating room allowed Weiss and her team to observe who spoke up in these mock life-or-death moments, and who kept quiet. The resulting data showed that 50 percent of nurses stayed quiet in each scenario, while many of the physicians — who, in the culture of the hospital, had a higher status — tended to speak their mind.

“We replicated this result in several other studies,” Weiss says. “And I think it is striking because even though it was just a simulation with a patient mannequin, many people were still reluctant to voice [concern].”

A lack of employee voice can be fatal on an individual level. In the U.S. alone, medical errors involving miscommunication lead to the deaths of up to 400,000 people annually. On an organizational level, the lack can be extraordinarily damaging and expensive. Over the last decade, federal agencies have fined banks more than US$250 billion for unethical behavior that very well could have been nipped in the bud had an employee spoken up early on. In addition, survey data indicates that almost 75 percent of employees (pdf) have experienced workplace bullying or harassment, which can lead to a toxic, low-performing work environment. Only a small fraction (pdf) ever speak up about it.

Although some leaders may fear that their employees will rock the boat by speaking up, in reality those workers are often helping avoid a shipwreck.

Although some leaders may fear that their employees will rock the boat by speaking up, in reality those workers are often helping avoid a shipwreck.

Another benefit of an environment that supports employee voice is that it makes for happier workers. A growing body of research has found that when people feel they can contribute their ideas, share problems, and speak up with concerns, they are more satisfied with their job, perform better, and are less likely to quit.

Weiss’s follow-up research, and others’ work in this field, indicates that organizations can get more employees to speak up if leaders build and reinforce the right habits team-wide. According to Weiss, “The importance of practicing such habits is to reduce people’s fear of speaking up, and to give them a structure when situations become critical.”

Before we can explore how leaders can foster a workplace where employee voice is valued, we must understand why employees don’t speak up. Conventional management wisdom says that employees will speak up once they muster the courage — if they see something, they’ll say something. But brain scientists repeatedly find this not to be the case. Time after time, otherwise morally upstanding people choose not to report something troubling.

In one now-famous experiment, college undergraduates who found themselves in a room filling with smoke from an unseen fire were far less likely to report the smoke if others were around. If the subject was in a group of three or more, 38 percent reported it. If a “passive” actor was present — that is, someone planted to shrug off the concern — that proportion came down to only 10 percent. Meanwhile, when they were alone, 75 percent of people spoke up, seeking out an authority figure to tell. The findings were early hints that even the slightest social pressure can prevent people from doing what they know to be right. Psychologists call this “diffusion of responsibility.” When we see something we think might be bad, but we know other people saw it too, each person tends to assume someone else will say something. So nobody says anything.

Beyond diffusing responsibility, people may not speak up for fear of being excluded. The human brain has evolved as a social organ, and science has long noted the importance of social connection for human survival. So sometimes people don’t speak up because they don’t want to make waves, fearing they will be rejected. Work by Naomi Eisenberger goes a step further to reveal that the emotional pain of being socially excluded is closely related to physical pain.

The tendency to speak up, or not, also comes down to whether a person feels powerless, excluded, or uncertain in a social system. At the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI), we think about how people act in a social system in terms of the SCARF model, a way of organizing the five key domains of social threat and reward: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. People will speak up in difficult situations only if they perceive a low threat level. Or, in the language of SCARF, they speak up if doing so won’t overwhelmingly threaten their sense of status and relatedness.

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Social threat can explain people’s tendency to rationalize away the need to speak up. Consider how you might react if you heard someone tell an offensive joke at work. You might address the issue right away, telling that person that the joke is not appropriate or taking the matter to your boss or that person’s superior. Or you might rationalize staying silent — the offensive-joke teller is your boss and speaking up may damage your career; others took the joke in stride so you should too, lest you be excluded; the joke teller is going through a rough patch and speaking up will only make things worse. You may thus decide that not speaking up is more tolerable than any number of consequences your imagination can dream up. As Weiss’s experiments have shown, the urge to rationalize away one’s voice can still win out.

According to Weiss, what really matters is the personal stakes that people perceive in a given situation. In Weiss’s hospital study, she found that nurses, who were culturally subordinate to the physicians, spoke up far less than the physicians. But it wasn’t because the nurses couldn’t grasp the severity of the problem. “They later told us in the debriefing that they did not dare to challenge the surgeon,” Weiss says. “The fear of backlash, such as negative evaluations, being seen as a troublemaker, or even [losing] one’s job, often carries much greater weight than seemingly objective stakes, such as making a wrong team decision.” 

Leaders looking to make big changes — not just in matters of speaking up, but in all aspects of culture — tend to mistake conception for completion. That is, they assume that getting buy-in on a new initiative will naturally produce a change across the organization. However, research on behavior change reveals a clear need for more than just setting priorities. Leaders also need to work toward building the right habits and supporting those habits with the right systems.

Two essential habits, when modeled and practiced, help people find their voice: speaking up in a way that is less challenging for the speaker, and less threatening to the person being spoken to. If leaders can make speaking up feel less threatening — and maybe even feel rewarding — they can create the kind of culture in which psychological safety thrives.

This is easier said than done. People can know what to do and why they want to do it, but still fail to follow through, as is common with New Year’s resolutions. That’s where systems enter the picture. Systems are the glue that holds behavior change initiatives together. They are what allow someone to turn a conscious behavior into an unconscious habit.

Systems ultimately gave the nurses in Weiss’s study greater voice. A couple of years after her hospital experiments, Weiss conducted a set of follow-up tests. The goal this time was to see whether nurses would speak up more if they were better equipped to have difficult conversations. For this, Weiss focused on another set of teams that, like nurses, operate in life-or-death situations: airline pilots.

Among airline pilots, there is an emergency protocol known as the “two-challenge rule.” It’s a system developed by the U.S. military to empower crew members to take action if their partner is unable to perform his or her duties. For instance, if a copilot notices the captain is confused or overwhelmed mid-flight, the copilot can issue a challenge — say, to adjust the altitude or the position of the aircraft. If the copilot gets no response, he or she can ask again. If there is still no response, the copilot is permitted to assume control of the aircraft.

The two-challenge rule typically results in fewer crashes because the copilots no longer need to worry about the pilot’s impression of them. Because both parties agreed to the system ahead of time, the threat level is reduced. Speaking up is not a case of a junior person being insubordinate to a senior person; it’s a case of a person sticking to a mutually agreed upon plan for the good of all involved. Though it may seem small, that shift in the copilot’s perspective is what can make all the difference in whether he or she speaks up.

Following her initial study, Weiss introduced the system to the surgery staff in the hospital. In the first study, when the surgeon would purposely slip up or break protocol, the nurses would remain silent. Following the training, they said things like “Hang on, I am not ready with the settings yet” and “We haven’t gone over the checklist yet.” During the mock surgeries in which nurses stuck to the two-challenge rule, they spoke up almost twice as often as nurses in prior experiments.

Leaders don’t need to implement the two-challenge rule, but they can rely on the science behind the concepts of a system and voice to instill the desired habits in their employees. Here’s how.

Introduce new language. Shared language holds the power to create shared realities. People who share a language about voice can use that language to create a more empowered culture in meetings and daily conversations, while reducing anxiety that others might take something the wrong way. For example, employees can preface their input with phrases that may reduce the potential for status threats, such as “I don’t mean this personally” or “For the sake of the project.”

Give explicit cues. At the start of a meeting, the highest-status people can remind everyone that feedback is welcome, and that all ideas will be heard. NLI’s experimental research has shown that asking for feedback, rather than forcing someone to give it unsolicited, reduces stress in both the giver and the receiver, creating better conditions for learning. Developing a culture of feedback supports the two habits of making it less challenging to speak up and less threat-provoking in the person being spoken to.

Choose words wisely. It sounds simple, but subtle changes in word choice can be effective in increasing voice. In one study focused on collective language, Weiss found that leaders could boost voice by 10 percent just by using the word we in discussions instead of less personal phrases such as the hospital or the organization. When leaders explicitly asked for input, voice rose 27 percent. “There is a simple mechanism at work,” Weiss says. “When leaders use collective language, they signal that they are approachable and more at eye level with their employees, and thus people feel more comfortable raising a concern.”

Be an example. When leaders demonstrate voice-raising behaviors to their teams, they act as catalysts for “goal contagion” — the spreading of a particular goal through a social network. Psychologists have long found that people come to mirror the behaviors they see in their peers, especially those who are held in high regard. Leaders wield this influence in the collective norms they “teach” their employees. People come to align their own goals with those of the leader. When voice becomes a priority for leaders, with the right habits and systems, it can become a non-heroic act for everyone to speak up, rippling out across all levels of the organization. Leaders must make all of the above tools a habit, and themselves speak up when they see something they find troubling.

“Organizations will benefit from a more motivated, more engaged, and more proactive workforce,” Weiss says. “Overall it’s a win-win, for people and the organization.”

Given the millions of people affected each year by the unethical decisions, inappropriate behavior, or mistakes of others, raising employees’ voices isn’t just a nice-to-have feature of a culture, but a business imperative.

Author profiles:

  • Khalil Smith heads the diversity and inclusion practice at the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI). He has 20-plus years of experience in leadership, strategy, and HR, including more than 14 years at Apple.
  • Chris Weller is a senior science editor at NLI.
  • David Rock is cofounder and director of the NLI, a global initiative bringing neuroscientists and leadership experts together.
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