How Leaders Can Help Teams Find Their Voice

Creating a supportive climate can coax even battle-scarred employees into speaking up
By: 
Jordan Whitehouse
Seven microphones lined up on a table.

On the night of April 20, 2010, a massive explosion ripped through the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, releasing more than 130 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean. It was the biggest oil spill in U.S. history, and it might have been prevented had rig workers spoken up. A government report pointed to the failure of the rig team to ask an engineer about a problematic cement job as a key reason for the disaster.

Deepwater may be the most infamous example of employees staying silent, but those rig workers are not alone. Studies consistently show that employees are reluctant to talk to their bosses about issues of concern. One study suggests that 50 per cent of employees keep it zipped at work.

What’s going on here? And how can leaders encourage people to speak up with ideas, concerns, opinions, or just information? Those questions have been at the heart of a growing body of research over the past 10 years that has generally focused on two elements: employee attitudes about speaking up, and the situational factors that support or prevent it.  

As helpful as that research is to understand why individual employees do or do not speak up, very little has looked at the issue in a team setting. One researcher who wants to change that is Kyle Brykman, who completed his PhD at Smith School of Business and is now an assistant professor of management at the University of Windsor.

“In general, we forget that we pick up so much information from social cues,” says Brykman. “So, if your manager shuts down your colleague after they try to voice a concern, you’re going to be wise to say to yourself, ‘Well, that tells me it’s not safe to speak up here.’ And that’s really what we found in our study.”

It starts at the top

That study was part of Brykman’s PhD dissertation. In it, he and co-author Addison Maerz, a Smith postdoctoral fellow, focus on several questions. Namely, what happens when people who think it’s risky to make their thoughts known join a team that reinforces or disconfirms those beliefs? Do they keep those thoughts to themselves regardless of whether the team environment suggests speaking up is welcome? Or can leaders help create a positive team environment that overrides individual beliefs?

To find out, Brykman and Maerz used the behavioural lab at Smith to run hypothetical brainstorming sessions with 154 participants split up into 42 teams. Before arriving at the lab, participants were surveyed to determine their individual beliefs about speaking up. Once at the lab, teams were asked to develop three new product ideas during three seven-minute sessions. Each team was also assigned a leader who had been trained in purposefully rejecting or accepting team ideas.

Overall, Brykman and Maerz found that leaders play a big role in influencing whether team members speak their mind or stay silent. Not surprisingly, when leaders accepted ideas, team members were more willing to voice their ideas. This wasn’t due to leaders’ specific reactions to ideas but to the general team atmosphere they had created by previously accepting or rejecting ideas—a.k.a. “voice climate”. In other words, people were not thinking of leaders’ specific responses to other team members when deciding to speak up. They were thinking of the voice climate and whether it supported speaking up.   

There was one somewhat unexpected result. While all teams reported more willingness to speak up as the voice climate got more positive, that willingness was amplified for teams that came into the study thinking speaking up was especially risky.

“I think this is the most important insight, because it’s one of the first studies to show that you can debunk your team members’ implicit fears,” says Brykman. “This gives leaders agency to say, ‘Yes, my team members are going to come in with various experiences, but we can overcome any sort of hesitancy they might have by creating a supportive voice climate, by agreeing with their suggestions, by showing them that they’re both safe and able to speak up.’”

Fast track to speaking up  

Another important insight is that voice climate develops quickly—in fact, within the first few team interactions. And once it’s established, it reinforces itself. This is why leaders need to be self-aware early in their team’s history, says Brykman. If they aren’t, they risk creating a negative voice climate that stifles open communication, and that strengthens over time.

How can leaders avoid this? Brykman says leaders first need to be aware that when people join teams, they come with previous experiences that shape what they think about teams and how they should collaborate.

“Paired with that, though, is the understanding that leaders can overcome their teams’ implicit fears,” says Brykman. “And they can do this by showing people early on that speaking up is both safe—that they’re not going to get punished—and worthwhile—that their ideas are really going to be considered.”

In Brykman’s experience, most leaders want to encourage people to speak up, but they aren’t all sure how exactly to do that. Brykman’s advice: avoid rejecting ideas. This doesn’t mean running with every idea, but even if you disagree with it and it’s low-risk and low-cost, it could be worth it to explore.

“That’s because the next idea may be the one you really need,” he says. “And you wouldn’t have gotten it if you were always turning people down. Keep rejecting ideas and you’re not going to have any more ideas to reject.”

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