How to foster a speaking-up culture at work

Published: 13 December 2017 By David De Cremer, Leander De schuutter, Jeroen Stouten, Jess Zhang

How to foster a speaking-up culture at work

Research shows leaders often undermine own efforts to get employees to speak up

 

Research has shown that leaders generally react quite negatively to employees who challenge them, even when employees do so constructively. Photograph: Getty Images

Research has shown that leaders generally react quite negatively to employees who challenge them, even when employees do so constructively. Photograph: Getty Images

 

When employees speak up, companies benefit. Thus not surprisingly, lots of leaders say they want to encourage their employees to speak freely and offer constructive feedback. But several studies suggest that leaders often undermine their own efforts to get employees to speak up.

Research has shown that leaders generally react quite negatively to employees who challenge them, even when employees do so constructively. Employees trying to resist certain changes or demands in non-hostile and constructive conversations are more likely to be labelled poor performers by their supervisors.

But supervisor retaliation can go even further than that.

In a recent study, we examined the question of whether employees who speak up to their supervisors in constructive yet challenging ways are confronted with more abusive leadership.

We invited employees from a wide range of industries in Belgium to participate in a web-based survey. We then asked them to invite a co-worker familiar with their work to participate as well.

Constructive resistance

The employees answered questions about how abusive their supervisor was, while their co-workers answered questions about how much constructive resistance the employee showed towards his or her supervisor.

Our analyses revealed that the more that employees were perceived by co-workers as showing constructive resistance toward their supervisors, the more likely the employees were to rate their supervisors as showing abusive behaviour towards them. Examples of abusive behaviour included their supervisor ridiculing them, being rude, invading their privacy or giving them the silent treatment.

For managers who want to avoid these pitfalls and foster a speaking-up culture, the research suggests several takeaways.

One important one is to actively embrace constructive conflict. Rather than waiting for employees to speak up – thus risking their own professional reputations – start a debate. A structured debate can force multiple perspectives out into the open.

Building trust

For employees trying to speak up, we suggest starting by building trust. The simplest way to do this? Be good at your job.

The primary cue for leaders to trust their employees is that those employees show that they are competent in the work they do. It’s also important to speak up as early as possible. If you do not provide feedback as early as possible, conflicts and frustrations are likely to build up, which ultimately may result in abusive responses.

Building speaking-up cultures is, on the whole, a good thing. However, senior leaders should be wary of encouraging employees to speak up without also training their middle managers in how to respond.

Wise companies encourage both their managers and their employees to communicate candidly, without dysfunctional repercussions.

– Copyright Harvard Business Review 2016

David De Cremer, Leander De Schutter and Jess Zhang are all connected with University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School. Jeroen Stouten is an associate professor of organisational psychology at KU Leuven University, Belgium.

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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