Top 10 tips to create and improve your employee voice 

“Assume you are wrong, you just need to be less wrong than you were”  Elon Musk

There has always been an expectation that managers have all the information and know all the answers.  While this was the situation, it has become more complex. It  requires more intellectual input and a balancing of complex interdependent tasks.  It is now the leaders and managers who need to be asking the questions of individuals who do these tasks and know them better than anyone else.  They need to take into account the employees’ voice. After all, nobody knows the answers to all the questions.

Employees want to be involved more in contributing to the success of their organisation.  In the initial work that EFS undertook, it was highlighted that 66% of employees said that they had more to give, but no one had asked them.  In fact, for two thirds of the work force, it is like ‘ground hog day’, where they ask why they are doing the same things over and over again, with little impact on how their work is done.

How do we tap into the employees’ voices?

Whilst we have workplaces where managers and leaders are feeling the pressure to provide all the answers, their staff are saying they already have the answers, if someone just asks. Leading organisations have been able to tap into this experience and knowledge from their staff and teams. This in turn has helped create innovation, unblock challenges and identify new opportunities to make their organisation more successful.  To be able to do this there are two areas to consider

  • What is the tool for capturing the employee voice?
  • How to encourage employees to use the tools?

Employee Voice Tools

There is a vast array of tools that can encourage employee voice dependent on the type of organisation, size and structure.  This process is not expensive. In fact there are completely free ways of identifying innovation and solutions to problems that you don’t even know exist.  These can include:

  • Suggestion boxes
  • Team meetings
  • Focus groups
  • Online forums
  • Questions asked on staff surveys
  • 1-1 meetings 
  • Informal water cooler conversations
  • Reverse mentoring
  • A seat at the boardroom table

The list could include any format where there is an opportunity to have dialogue with employees. This will help to understand more about their work and how it impacts what is happening in the organisation.  Once an organisation has identified their strategic narrative or purpose, and shared this with the employees, they know where the organisation wants to go.The employees can then start helping to make suggestions as to how to get there.

A key area to consider is the frequency that you seek employee voice.  The world of work is changing rapidly, and businesses need to be seeking regular feedback from employees.  The idea of once a year is out of date.

Many organisations put most focus into identifying and structuring the tool.  However, the tool is secondary to creating an ‘environment’ at work, where employees feel that they can speak freely without the fear of comeback or reprisal for the information that they provide through using the tool.

Encouraging people to speak up

Growing up as children, we all found times when we made comments or suggestions, the response or feedback from others made us feel uncomfortable or even hurt.  As this happened more and more, we learnt to develop techniques to avoid this negative feedback.  Usually, this meant that we would not say anything to save the risk of receiving more negative feedback.

According to Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard University, this condition of self-preservation is set by the time we leave school.   Dependent on the work environments that we then go into, this will then impact on whether we have the confidence to start to speak up or speak less.  This leads to a lot of employee voice tools being anonymous, potentially leading to improper comments by a minority, whilst failing to engage employees, develop relationships, or create the potential of innovation, when people are confident to speak up. Amy calls this Psychological Safety. Creating psychological safety is key to removing the fear that what people say may be treated negatively.  Her research found that the top two reasons for not speaking up at work were:

  • Number 1 – fear of being viewed negatively
  • Number 2 – fear of damaging a work relationship

Whilst not feeling able to speak up might be a legacy issue for some of your team, as the manager or leader, it is down to you to help them see through this.  You are not just looking for one voice, you are looking for a collaborative process and creative energy. So you will want to encourage everyone in the organisation.  This also creates diversity of thought by encouraging everyone to have a voice.

When you are talking to employees, be aware that you may have a blind side. You are sending signals that you might not be aware of, but that have an impact on how people are prepared to interact with you.  David Rocks SCARF Model provides an overview of how you can approach these conversations without intimidating the employees before the conversation even starts.  When you have conversations that are sociologically equitable and balanced, it leads to strengthening relations, as opposed to just rudimentary civility during conversations.

What do you ask ?

To get the most from this for the employee and the business, asking question that you don’t already know the answers to, will help to create a willingness and curiosity in the conversation.  This is as opposed to asking a question where the answer will only support your understanding of situation.  This could include:

  • Broad Questions – gain understanding of a situation or expand on an option.  What might we be missing?  What other ideas could we generate, who has a different perspective?
  • Deep Questions – what leads you to think like that? Can you give me an example?

What do you do with the answers?

As Elon Musk says, “Assume you are wrong, you just need to be less wrong than you were”.  Approaching employee voice in this way ensures you provide the best opportunity for all to learn from the process. And once you have asked the questions, be prepared for the response.  How you listen is just as important as the questions you ask. Don’t try to second guess their comments or finish their sentences.  Have time to listen to their response – just because someone has stopped speaking, it doesn’t mean that they have stopped thinking and the best may be yet to come.

When you receive feedback or comments, treat them as if they are a gift and say “thank-you”.  Remember some of the employees will have had to build up courage to tell you things, as they have been avoiding speaking up since they were at school.  For best effect, let the employee then know what you are going to do with their comment.  If they think nothing has happened with their comment, they are unlikely to tell you anything else in the future.

Whilst the tools and processes to capture employee voice are important, it is setting an environment where people feel able to use the tools and speak openly, which makes the difference.

To be successful today, people need to bring their brains to work with them.  Allow your talent to be the best it can be.  Allow people to share their knowledge, sharing concerns, questions, mistakes and half-formed ideas.  However, in most work places today, people are holding back.  Organisations that want to stay relevant through continuous learning and agile execution, must cultivate a fearless environment that encourages employee voice.

To summarise, the top 10 tips to create and improve your employee voice are:
  • Share your strategic narrative / purpose with the employees so they know what the organisation is looking for input on.
  • Pick an employee voice / dialogue tool that works for your organisation
  • Use the tool frequently
  • Create a psychological safe environment where people feel comfortable to contribute.
  • Encourage input from all for diversity of thought
  • Be aware of the impact of your blind side to prevent employees being concerned about contributing
  • Ask questions you don’t know the answer to
  • Take the time to listen to the response
  • Say “thank you” for their comments
  • Provide feedback on what you will do with their comments.

Author: Frazer Rendell, Director Business Improvement and Employee Engagement, E-Trinity Consultancy. Frazer has been involved with Engage for Success as a Regional Ambassador and Chair of Performance Thought and Action Group for over 7 years.

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