A lot of people struggle to express themselves at their workplace. You may, in fact, be one of these people. If you are—or if you are a manager or leader to someone who feels challenged to express themselves—it’s crucial to give yourself and your employees a voice. Why? Because your employees’ voices are one of the most important assets your company has.
Every individual in an organization has their own unique perspective. This means that every individual has insight into how the entire organization is functioning.
Organizational Blind Spots
If you’re only hearing from certain people in the company, your organization will inevitably have blind spots.
It’s crucial to expose these blind spots to run a company that is healthy and thriving. Yet, so many organizations make a huge error: they don’t give their employees a chance to share their genuine experiences.
As a voice and presence coach, I have seen firsthand how learning and development initiatives often prioritize CEOs, the C Suite, and managers. While this is wonderful, it’s not enough. If you’re not giving every individual in your organization access to professional development conversations, you’re leaving out crucial perspectives—and crucial voices.
When you give your employees a voice, you give them a chance to report both on what is happening in your company and also the efficiency of how it is happening. Your employees get to feel seen and heard, which makes them happier to keep contributing. Hearing your employees’ voices means you are taking care of your most important asset: the people who create the conditions for your product or service to continue being delivered to the world.
Why Employees Don’t Speak Up
The long and the short of it is: they’re scared.
The primary need of any human being is to ensure their own safety and survival. This is as true on the savanna as it is in the office. And if you think about it, we really work to survive.
Of course, our work might be helping us fulfill our purpose in the world at the same time. But first and foremost, we show up to our jobs so we have the resources to meet our most basic needs like food and shelter. This means that when there is any threat at work, it registers as a survival issue in our nervous system. Very quickly, we go into protective mode, and when we do, the first thing to leave us is our ability to speak up. If we think we may be punished, we shut down our voice.
But there’s even more that happens when our work environment doesn’t feel safe for us—we also become less productive. Our human nervous system is essentially a machine. It’s able to function optimally when it feels comfortable, but when it’s under a perceived threat, it becomes focused only on survival. Employees in this state can get distracted easily, become jumpy or combative, and are unlikely to communicate well.
So, ask yourself: Are the employees in my company reporting back to me about how their work is going? Are they speaking honestly about their workload? Are they sharing what could help them be more efficient? If they’re not offering this kind of feedback, chances are they don’t feel safe, comfortable, or invited to do so.
Notice if the employees in your company aren’t using their voices to share how they’re doing. If they’re not, they need a safer environment to do so.
I’ll talk in a moment about what you can do to create a safer environment. But first, let’s get clear about what could be making your employees feel uneasy.
Things That Are Making Your Employees Uncomfortable
Imagine this scenario going on at an organization:
Lisa is in a familiar jam—the marketing department needs information from her today, but the product team isn’t going to get back to her until Thursday. This keeps happening, and Lisa is frustrated and confused about what to do. She keeps pinging the product team, and they’re getting snippy with her. Meanwhile, she’s getting hounded with emails from marketing about the missed deadlines.
Lisa may not be a higher-up, but at the next meeting that includes the product team, the marketing team, and the leadership folks, it’s crucial that Lisa’s voice be heard. She is the puzzle piece that can help make sense of a larger organizational issue. If Lisa doesn’t have a chance to speak up, not only will the workflow issues continue, but she will also continue to feel more frustrated, less excited to show up to the office, and less effective at her job.
Of course, organizationally, it’s crucial to address operational issues like this. But now let’s take an example that involves an employee’s personal identity. Imagine this situation:
Nina was in a meeting last week where someone told her she needed to “calm down because she seemed frustrated.” To her, this was a very obvious incident of being labeled the angry Black woman. But the micro-aggression didn’t seem to register to anyone else on her team. No one stood up for her during the meeting, and now she knows that if she confronts the person who said it or speaks to her boss, either of them may double down on the idea that she needs to calm down and not be so angry.
Nina is left feeling unsafe to express any displeasure or frustration about her work. This means she can no longer communicate honestly, and she certainly will not share her personal experience with anyone at the office.
With her nervous system in a state of anxiety, Nina will quickly become less productive at her job. She will only open up if someone comes to her with genuine curiosity and a sense of non-punitive openness, inviting her to share. Otherwise, she’ll keep her mouth shut so as not to be under further threat.
How to Create a Safe Environment for Expression
The most important thing leaders of an organization can do to create a safe environment is to model honest and open expression themselves. This means becoming adept at expressing appreciation and also expressing the need for change without unnecessary punishment or harm.
Here’s what you can do to help your employees open up their voices:
Step 1: Ask Specific Questions
An employee who has felt vocally shut down for a prolonged period of time will have trouble speaking freely right away. This means it will not be very effective to ask open-ended questions. If you say: “How’s everything going for you here at work?” You’re likely going to hear “Fine.” This is someone still stuck in protection mode.
If you want to get real answers, you’ll want to ask specific questions. You could ask:
- “Are you experiencing any difficulties with workflow or communication in your team?”
- “Are there any suggestions you have for how we can meet deadlines better?”
- “Have any incidents occurred that make you feel uncomfortable in the office?”
Keep in mind, your employee still won’t share honest answers with you unless it’s clear they’re not going to be punished for being transparent. You must be genuinely curious and ready to implement changes based on what you hear.
Step 2: Take Action Based on the Feedback
When your employees help reveal a blind spot or an issue that needs to be addressed, take action to make corrections immediately and efficiently. If you don’t, you’re committing the worst offense of all—being all talk and no walk. If you don’t follow through, you can be sure that your employees will shut down their voices once again and stop sharing with you.
So, set up a new communication and deadline structure. Bring in a DEI consultant. Put your money where your mouth is, and make the changes your employees are revealing to be necessary.
It is an immensely brave thing for an employee to speak their truth to you, and it is crucial to honor the information you receive by taking action.
Step 3: Create a Culture of Respect and Wellness
When you take these first two actions, you begin creating a culture in which people are truly honored for speaking up. You show that you value each individual’s contribution to the organization.
In a way, giving your employees a voice is really about caring for their overall well-being. It is treating them as whole and complete human beings so that their nervous systems can serve as the best functioning “machines” possible to do their job well.
When we ask specific questions with curiosity and when we take action based on what we hear, we are acknowledging our employees as valued members of our workplace. This creates a culture of respect and wellness.
You can also continue to nurture your employees with things like raises, bonuses, and asking how their’ son’s birthday party went. But give the raises and the bonuses or ask about the birthday party without the basis of genuine respect in the office, and you’ve still got a culture that simply doesn’t help people feel safe. So, always come back to asking the questions and making the changes.
Ultimately, You’ll See More Productivity
The bottom line is that if we don’t take care of people’s wellness and, ultimately, safety in the workplace, we can’t expect productivity. And how do we find out if our employees don’t feel well or safe? We invite them to use their voice.
So, if you really truly want employees who are working at their greatest potential with the greatest amount of creativity, the greatest amount of curiosity, and the greatest amount of innovation, you’ve got to be sure that you’re honoring their voices. The great news is, it’ll impact your bottom line in the best ways, too.
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