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Elizabeth Morrison interview on speaking up

The leading academic on speaking up, the role of leaders and the power of the messenger. This is our interview with Elizabeth Morrison.

Elizabeth Morrison, a leading organizational behaviour scholar and expert on the topic of speaking up, is a Professor of Management and Organisation at Stern School of Business at New York University. From 2012-2018, Elizabeth was the Vice Dean of Faculty at NYU Stern. She teaches courses in leadership, negotiation and conflict resolution, and her research is focused on different ways in which employees are proactive at work, the factors that predict proactive behaviour, the effects of proactive behaviours on employees and organisations.

What really distinguishes organisations with good speak up cultures from those with bad speak up cultures?

A speak up culture, or what researchers would refer to as the climate of voice, is defined by two central beliefs held by employees. When we have widespread beliefs that voice is effective and safe, we have a climate of voice. A climate of silence, on the other hand, is when people have a general belief that voice is futile or unsafe.

These beliefs are shaped by a variety of different things. There has been a considerable amount of research trying to identify what it is that shapes voice climates, but one of the most important things that seems to distinguish organisations with climates of voice is what leaders do to encourage, support and respond positively to employee voice. This seems to be a consistent theme that comes from the literature.

We know from research that negative experiences have a much stronger impact than positive experiences, and it takes a number of positive counter examples to undo the effects of a negative experience. The frustrating situation that many organisations are currently in is that if there is a climate that is not conducive to voice, and there are already deep-seated fears, this is really hard to undo. You have to really just keep hitting people over the head with more positive experiences. It is not impossible, but it will certainly be difficult to undo those fears.

We are told that speak up climates vary a lot between teams in an organisation and there are no magic bullets. That being said, is there any one thing you would say that an organisation can do to fundamentally improve its speak up culture?

I conducted a study[1] with some colleagues and we found, somewhat surprisingly, that there is considerable variation in voice climate across teams within the same organisation. This really highlights the importance of team leaders in creating an open and safe environment for speaking up. That is not to say that the message from top management does not matter, but what it emphasises is that what is happening at a local level matters a lot. What organisations can and should do is educate, train and support team leaders and supervisors in things they can do to create a climate where people feel that voice is safe and worthwhile.

Research[2] also shows the importance of voice solicitation, which means actively asking for input and adopting more of a consultative style. When people then have issues, they are more likely to spontaneously raise them. Another is open listening. As human beings we have a tendency to not listen well. Listening is a hard skill. We know that people are naturally inclined to react defensively to negative feedback or bad news.  It is natural to act defensively when you hear something that feels threatening. Active training is something that can help people to manage their reactions to news that they do not want to hear. It is also important to train managers on how to close the loop so that people know what happened to the input that they provided. These are things that all managers can learn to do better, and even helping managers be aware of the non-verbal signs that they give off can make a difference.

When I was Vice Dean of Faculty at NYU Stern, people would very often come to me with problems. There were times, particularly at the end of a crazy day and with problems coming at me from all angles, that the last thing I really wanted was one more problem on my desk. I had to very consciously work on conveying that I was receptive to input, even when what I was genuinely feeling, which was “Oh please, not another problem to deal with.” A part of the lesson here is recognising that managers are dealing with plenty of time pressures and demands. It really takes work to counter the natural tendency to send off signals that you do not feel like having a particular conversation and to remind yourself that it is important to be open to issues and concerns.

Many managers tend to say, “I have an open-door policy and you can talk to me about anything” and then act in ways that convey the opposite. Managers have to work really hard to control the non-verbal cues that they convey. If an employee comes to you with a concern that is not useful or well informed, and you convey it as that, the employee may not come to you in the future, with information that could be very relevant and well informed. When I teach, for example, I would much rather receive “dumb questions” than to mistakenly shut down the good ones. What would you rather have – more input to sift through that you really want, or the opposite, where you receive nothing?  Managers also need to recognize that just because they are not hearing about problems does not mean they are not there.

Often we hear advice about what senior leaders and middle managers can do to create better speak up climates in their organisations. Is there anything that more junior employees can do in their teams to improve the speak up climate?

One thing that employees can do is help one another. I think the term amplification is relevant here.  Amplification would be if colleagues were in a room and one said, “l I think the point that my colleague made is an important one and I want to echo that.” This colleague is reinforcing what their fellow team member has said.

The best thing junior employees can do to create a climate that supports voice is to voice themselves because it can become a positive spiral. The more that speaking up becomes something that everyone does, the more it becomes part of the culture. The more that people remain silent, the more that people withhold, the more that becomes part of the culture.

Employees themselves can make a difference, but they have to be comfortable to take those initial steps. Also, it is much harder for a manager to dismiss something multiple people are rallying behind versus just one person. Sometimes it has to be a group effort, if you want to raise a particular issue, you may need to have supportive allies and engage in collective voice.

The BSB has found evidence that employees feel differently about speaking up depending on the types of concerns that they would like to raise. Employees may feel different levels of psychological safety when raising consumer and product-related issues versus raising HR-related ones. How do you suggest that these findings can help firms develop different channels for speaking up, or tailor different employee experiences after doing so?

When we are talking about more sensitive issues (issues around fairness, discrimination, unprofessional conduct) this is where firms really need to have anonymous or highly confidential channels for people to voice because people are going to be particularly concerned about negative repercussions. I say highly confidential as opposed to anonymous because there are certain times where you cannot necessarily guarantee anonymity. Those channels should be distinct from the types of channels that an organisation might have in place for speaking up about other types of issues.

I would highlight three categories of speaking up:

  1. Companies should want people raising suggestions and good ideas — not problems but opportunities. These are the least risky but there is still some social risk in raising an idea as it might get shot down.
  2. Then there is raising problems which have to do with work products or services. These are work-related problems and they are riskier.
  3. The third category has to do with serious problems that have to do with people’s behaviour or something that is unethical or illegal. This is the category where you need a whistleblowing hotline.

At the moment many banks are restructuring which involves cutting jobs, how can we really create a safe environment for speaking up when everyone is terrified that they could lose their job at any minute?

It is going to be really hard for employees to take any kind of risk if they feel their job is precarious. Organisations need to do whatever they can do to make the criteria for cutting jobs as transparent as possible. That is often the root of the anxiety – not only do people not know what is going to happen or if it going to affect them but they do not know what is determining who is going or who is staying. This creates an environment where people are particularly paranoid about their jobs. One piece of advice for banks in general, is to not elongate the process and keep a long period of uncertainty hanging over people’s heads. That is when the atmosphere can get really toxic. Once job cuts are over, then you can move on to building an environment where people feel safe and supported, and ensuring there are channels in place to speak up. As long as the organisation is in the mode where any day there could be job cuts, it is going to be hard to do that.

Very often organisations do a good job protecting whistle-blowers or protecting any employee from any significant negative consequences they might fear they would face when speaking up. But how can organisations get better at protecting individuals and reducing their fear of subtle negative repercussions when they speak up, for example, if they raise a minor issue and subsequently their relationship with a manager is damaged, or they are not included in high profile projects, or any other form of ‘getting the cold shoulder’?

This goes back to creating a culture that welcomes critical input and speaking up as valued rather than being viewed as negative. It is all about working with managers. Let it be noted that it is really hard to know what is happening in terms of subtle repurcussions. As people interact with one another, impressions are formed, and reactions occur, and  it is hard to totally address the fact that a manager may form a negative impression of somebody based on something they raised.

Organisations need to work with managers and help them to understand the value of employee voice and their role as voice managers, and also focus on what managers can do to encourage colleagues to support each other.

BSB data shows that employees in some organisations avoid speaking up because they fear negative consequences but those who actually spoke up in the same organisation have had a satisfactory experience, felt listened and taken seriously. What can organisations do to try to challenge false assumptions that employees hold about the negative consequences of speaking up?

Research[3] shows that people have certain beliefs about the consequences of speaking up, but if you ask them if they have ever seen these things happen, they often have not. For example, if they say they may get fired for speaking up and then you ask them if they have seen this occur, the answer is usually no. There is not necessarily first-hand or second-hand experience to support these beliefs.

The best advice is to find ways to publicise the positive experiences of employees who have voiced, to help counter the implicit theories people may have about voice being risky. Think about how to convey people’s own stories about experiences that they have had with speaking up as a positive experience. When people have negative beliefs and fears, they can be incredibly strong, and so they need to be countered by even stronger counter narratives.

[1] Reference 1

[2] Reference 2

[3] Reference 3