Employee Voice is a term that I’ve been hearing more of recently, and when I was asked to speak at an event on the subject by the Employee Engagement Alliance, it was with the brief of talking about the science of listening.
It’s obvious that it’s important to listen to people at work, right? Two-way communication, better decisions, happier employees…? All true. But what happens when we feel listened to, or not, and why is that important?
The longer answer means looking in a little more detail at listening, at voice, and what human dynamics are at play when we feel listened to or not.
What do we mean by ‘voice’?
Listening is a skill that anyone, including managers, can develop (as described in this HBR article). Although there are parallels to listening in the therapeutic context, such as making people feel safe and not judged, clarifying and playing back what you’ve heard, at work when someone speaks up it is usually because they want something to change.
That’s what I (and the research tends to) mean by voice. At work, voice means voluntarily offering suggestions, ideas or opinions about what needs to change or improve. We don’t have to be invited to use voice, and we don’t necessarily have to be involved in solving the problem (though we might). Voice is, therefore, a behaviour that is principally change-oriented and communicative.
In the context of a motivational system: My behaviour is influenced by my mindset (or motivations) and my emotional experience. My mindset determines how I evaluate the situation, which creates an emotional response that in turn influences my behaviour. My behaviour, in this instance voice, then influences the situation once more.
As a behaviour, my use of voice might be motivated by many things, including my own needs or my perception of what my colleagues or the organisation as a whole needs.
The importance of Psychological Safety
To speak up and suggest change in this way can feel risky, so I must first feel safe: Safe that I can challenge without fear of retribution; safe that my views won’t alienate me from my colleagues; safe that I can be and express myself as I am.
It is the responsibility of leaders and managers to create this sense of safety. They can become more skilled as listeners but must first value all contribution, from whomever it comes or how it is expressed. They must practice tolerance.
Feeling listened to versus having your say
Let’s say that I’ve felt safe enough to use my voice, and given my views to my line manager. At this point, the difference between being able to have my say and being listened to is knowing that what I’ve said is valued in some way, or is being used to make a difference. It requires some kind of feedback.
Ultimately, if I don’t get any kind of feedback, I don’t feel like I’m being listened to.
What happens when we don’t feel listened to?
What might have started as being a good corporate citizen can become about my needs. I spoke up because I felt that my colleagues could be better treated, or that the organisation could benefit from changing a process; but now I feel like my opinions don’t matter, perhaps that I have no influence or that my boss doesn’t care about me.
What that means is that my mindset has changed, and my emotional experience is now one of (say) powerlessness, resentment and anger. In other words, my use of voice and the lack of response has become as source of stress.
In my own work, I use a definition of stress (based on Reversal Theory) that separates the bad feeling associated with an unpleasant emotion (which we call tension-stress) and the work that we do to manage that feeling (which we call effort-stress).
If I get a negative reaction to speaking up, I’m going to feel less safe doing it in the future. If I don’t get a reaction at all, I’m going to feel less confident doing it.
Anything that feels risky, like speaking up at work, needs a bit of both. If we don’t feel good about speaking up (at least safe, and ideally at least a bit confident), it’s a stress, quite frankly, that we can do without.
Research on Stress, Voice and Performance
A meta-analysis of the research into stress, voice and performance (Ng and Feldman, 2011) found exactly this. What they wanted to know was whether, when stressed, we tend to use voice more or less. In theory, we could either use voice more under stress (to get support, or to remove the source of stress, for example) or we could use it less (to conserve the coping ‘resources’ that we have).
The researchers found that we use voice less under stress, particularly when stressors are social or organisational (like when we don’t feel listened to), rather than task-based. They also found that use of voice is positively associated with performance, particularly with reference to creativity (self and other-reported), in-role performance (other reported) and implementation of new ideas (self and other).
That’s like a stressed business taking the decision that it can’t afford a sales team. It avoids cost but it’s also likely to hit revenues.
Voice and Employee Engagement
The implications for Employee Engagement (e.g. Kahn, 1990) from these findings is also clear. Kahn’s research proposed three core conditions that contributed to people being able to bring their whole selves to work:
- Psychological safety, which we’ve established is an enabler of voice;
- Psychological availability, which is reduced by any form of stress; and
- Meaningfulness, which is only going to be increased when we use our voice at work and we feel that it makes a difference.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that voice is proposed as an enabler of employee engagement (Ruck et al, 2017).
There is a clear choice to business leaders and managers, therefore.
- To create a virtuous cycle that starts with psychological safety and trust, encourages voice and makes people feel like they are being listened to and promotes engagement and performance; or
- To create a vicious cycle of anxiety, stress, disengagement and lower trust.
How to encourage voice
1) Work on making it feel safe to speak up and challenge the status quo
If I feel safe to express myself in my own way, without being judged, that’s inclusion..
2) Encourage and equip line managers to be effective listeners
They should seek first to understand, before being understood, as Stephen Covey would say. Treat listening as a core management skill.
3) Remove barriers to action
Your managers might be great listeners but if they can’t take or enable their team to, the effect will ultimately be demotivating for all. If you’re going to run sessions that facilitate voice, put people in the room that can own the outcomes. In most cases this isn’t HR!
4) Facilitate practical ‘change talk’
Related to the last point, if you just get people in the room to tell you how they feel about work, you run the risk of generating a mish-mash of stuff that you can’t fix. Be focused. Have a session on how well the finance processes are working, and get someone from finance in the room with the authority to act.
5) Make sure that formal ‘listening processes’ allow space for voice
There’s a time and a place for employee surveys, which offer less opportunity for people to express themselves. Don’t shut off voice by relying solely on ‘closed’ methods like surveys. If you’re running focus groups, don’t over-fill them with structure and stifle the spontaneity of voice.
Apter, M.J. (Ed.) (2001). Motivational Styles in Everyday Life: A Guide to Reversal Theory. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Ng, T. W. and Feldman, D. C. (2012), Employee voice behavior: A meta‐analytic test of the conservation of resources framework. J. Organiz. Behav., 33: 216-23 4. 10.1002/job.754
Ruck, K., Welch, M. & Menara, B. (2017). Employee voice: An antecedent to organisational engagement? Public Relations Review. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0363811116304805