Most company leaders say that they want their employees to be heard. They want their employees to have a voice. But, when it comes down to it, what exactly does “employee voice” include? Is it simply just about speaking up when they have a concern?
What is employee voice?
Employee voice is more of an all-encompassing phrase to describe the ways in which employees are able to contribute, influence and share their points of view as it relates to work activities, decisions and overall company culture. Employee voice includes things like:
- Speaking up in meetings
- Sharing ideas and knowledge
- Offering feedback and constructive criticism
- Engaging in healthy debate
- Collaborating more with team members
- Recognizing peers for positive contributions
- Going to their manager with questions or concerns
- Having an overall positive influence on the work for which they’re responsible and the people around them
Employee voice doesn’t seem complicated – but it can be stunted when leaders do not convey the importance and acceptance of employee voice with their teams.
Why employee voice matters
When employee voice is recognized and valued, employees are more productive and committed. They know what they do matters to the company, customer and team members. Employee voice is a critical ingredient for achieving high employee engagement, morale, loyalty and retention.
When employees speak up, it’s indicative of a high-functioning workplace. It usually means:
- Employees are taking ownership of their work.
- Team dynamics and manager-employee relationships are healthy.
- Comfort, trust and inclusivity are present. People feel safe in being honest and authentic about their thoughts.
From leaders’ perspectives, employees using their voices prevents companies from becoming mired in stagnation and groupthink. Companies can gain valuable employee insights and knowledge, and as a result don’t miss out on any opportunities for creativity, innovation or improvement.
Additionally, when a person feels comfortable speaking up and contributing, they will tend to feel more invested in the quality and outcome of their work product, which ultimately improves the customer experience.
Why employees want to have a voice
For employees, the awareness that they can speak freely makes them feel:
- Like an active stakeholder
- Valued and appreciated
Employees using their voice has the added benefit of boosting their careers. When managers and peers are regularly exposed to the insights of an employee and better understand their value, it can expand that person’s sphere of responsibilities and speed up their advancement.
How leaders can amplify employee voice
Whether you know employee voice is specifically an area for growth, or if your primary goal is to improve employee engagement and retention, implementing the below strategies is a good place to start.
1. Confirm yours is a speak-up, listen-up culture
Everything comes back to the type of culture you have. Evaluate your culture to ensure that the right elements are in place to encourage people to speak up.
A culture that is conducive to speaking up emphasizes:
- Respect for others
- Tolerance for diverse viewpoints, especially those that differ from one’s own opinions and beliefs
- Innovation (an appetite for new ideas and challenging the status quo)
- Safety (zero tolerance for harassment or retaliation)
These values must be talked about and demonstrated each day.
But to have an effective speak-up culture, you must also have a listen-up culture. For employees to make the effort to speak up, they have to know that leaders are listening. Otherwise, it’s a waste of their time and they’ll quickly become disengaged.
2. Model speak-up behaviors
Leaders set the tone for the organization. Your employees take their cues about what’s important from you. So, if you want your employees to embrace a certain value or behavior, you have to model it.
To show them that a speak-up culture is important, you should regularly:
- Share your own thoughts and feedback.
- Challenge conventional ideas – in a positive, constructive way.
- Recognize and praise team members for speaking up.
3. Practice transparency and collaboration
Share as much information with employees as you can, as soon as you can. Whenever you enact new initiatives or plans of action, hold team sessions and involve employees in the development process as much as possible. Always look for ways to collaborate with employees.
The more employees are looped in, the more confident and empowered they’ll feel and the more meaningful their insight will be.
4. Meet regularly with team members
Trust doesn’t happen immediately – you have to build rapport with your employees, both in group settings and one-on-one. This also increases opportunities to model the speak-up, listen-up behaviors you want to cultivate.
5. Solicit employee input
It’s not enough to tell employees to speak up – you have to give them the opportunity and channels to do so.
Don’t just talk at your team members – invite them to participate in a two-way conversation. Make it at a regular practice to ask others, “What do you think?” Reserve time during meetings for others to present ideas or ask questions.
Let employees know that you have an open-door policy, and that they can bring ideas, questions and concerns to you at any time. If you’re not available at the exact moment an employee stops by or messages you, schedule a mutually convenient time as soon as possible.
Consider more formal and scheduled means of capturing employee feedback as well. You could leverage employee surveys or focus groups on an annual basis, for example.
6. Park your ego
Make it clear, through your words and actions, that you’re not threatened by others challenging long-held company beliefs or practices and even your own opinions – again, in a respectful, constructive way. Successful leaders can’t have an ego and take professional disagreement personally. This is especially true if you want to reinforce that yours is a tolerant, innovation-friendly workplace.
7. Be respectful
When employees share ideas or feedback, be careful to avoid quick judgement, criticism or rejection – even if you strongly disagree. These actions could have a chilling effect on future employee contributions, which can undo all the progress you’re trying to make toward establishing a speak-up culture.
- Focus on the positive and praise the elements of the employees’ contributions that you feel warrant it.
- Thank the employee for their contribution.
- Let them know that you’ll think about what they said.
8. Demonstrate active listening
Remember the listen-up culture we referenced previously? In today’s workplace, one of the most important soft skills that leaders should master is active listening skills, which include:
- Avoiding distractions and focusing 100% of your attention on the employee speaking.
- Expressing interest.
- Asking thoughtful follow-up questions.
- Seeking clarification when needed.
9. Accommodate different personalities and working styles
Sometimes, an employee being quiet has nothing to do with your organization or management. Maybe they’re an introvert and are just naturally quiet and reserved, or they have a fear of speaking in front of others.
Managers must adapt their leadership style according to personalities and working styles. Get to know your employees as individuals and learn their preferences. You may have to identify alternate ways for them to contribute their feedback without generating discomfort. This is part of having a culture of inclusion.
For example, you could let employees:
- Anonymously share feedback.
- Submit their feedback privately via email or in one-on-one conversations.
- Have extra time to gather their thoughts to avoid a situation in which they feel put on the spot.
10. Always follow up
If you’re going to ask employees to take the time and make the effort to speak up or complete surveys, make it worth their while. You can’t just leave them hanging and ignore what they said forever. This will make them feel belittled and rejected, and annoyed that you wasted their time. Over time, they will come to understand you’re not actually listening, nor do you care – and they’ll stop speaking up.
Always follow up with employees to let them know what became of their feedback or idea. The company will either:
- Implement it
- Modify it
- Take no action
If you can’t implement an employee idea at this time or you have to make changes, tactfully explain why. Encourage them to keep sharing.
If the company is implementing an employee idea, recognize and celebrate this employee in front of their peers for their contribution.
If an employee reported a concern to you, inform the relevant parties and come up with a plan of action in a timely manner.
Report all survey results to the entire company, along with any next steps.
The point is, take some sort of meaningful action that lets the employee know you heard them and cared enough to investigate what they had to say.
Summing it all up
The employee voice is a powerful tool. When employees feel they can speak up and share ideas, knowledge, opinions, feedback and concerns, this means your company likely enjoys high levels of engagement, ownership of work, trust, respect and inclusion among its people. It’s also a great means for companies to improve and innovate. However, if you’re struggling to get your employees to speak up, enlist the 10 tips outlined here.
Encouraging employees to use their voice is a strong indicator of a healthy speak-up, listen-up culture. To learn more about creating a workplace in which everyone feels comfortable speaking up, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to company culture.