The question many employees in the workplace contemplate is when to speak up about a business practice, process or decision that is not right or that they disagree with. More often than not, the easy route is to go with the flow because this is somewhat expected, has little employment risk, and is less stressful, and the path of least resistance so to speak. Why has our business culture largely evolved to one where you are conditioned to go along with poor business decisions because the other option of speaking up is too risky?
I was talking with a PhD colleague of mine recently who was let go as a CEO. He had come to the conclusion that our business culture is evolving to one where we chew people up and then spit them out. In other words people are just the tools of the real business power brokers and that people are tolerable in their contribution as long as they don’t overstep their bounds. The flip side of this is that those who figure out how to successfully challenge the status quo, often rise through the ranks and end up being power brokers themselves who often ironically do not genuinely welcome the thought of having their own thinking challenged. In the course of my HR consulting career, many times I have heard employees confide in me that they cannot raise certain valid business issues because they would end up getting fired for it, or some lesser form of added job stress. This is an issue for sure. But, why is it like this and more importantly, what can be done about it?
I suggest that a healthy organizational culture is one where employees are encouraged to speak up at any level without any fear at all of retribution, and furthermore, that this is clearly articulated as a core company value – no fear of retribution for speaking up. Taking this to the extreme, wouldn’t it be interesting to work in a culture where it was a requirement to say at all times what is on your mind about what is going on in the workplace. Of course this would represent a chaotic state. But we don’t need to go to that extreme.
To answer the question – Why is it like this? (employees being fearful of speaking up) is not that hard to understand, as stated, the risk of doing so, very often does not match the rewards for doing so. Another reason is that employees are not trained in how to properly raise issues in a proper business sense without it often looking like a personal vendetta. Interestingly, as an HR Consultant, when I go in to assess an organization, I always glean more information from talking with non-management employees than looking at policies, financials, or even talking with executives. One of the reasons is that I inherently know that execs often are more guarded because there is more at stake for them if they choose to open up (this is not true however in all cases). I also am skilled in gaining confidence of employees by getting them to understand that their input is very valuable and that their identity will not be revealed, if this is their wish, so in essence, I often end up being the deliverer of not so nice news.
In a recent client situation, this fear of speaking up was so well ingrained in the culture of the organization, that it was affecting business results in a significant way; it was affecting their ability to bring on desperately needed qualified resources. The culture had evolved to one where if you didn’t agree with all decisions coming from senior management, then you simply did not fit in the organization, and would eventually be terminated. Surprisingly, this goes on every day in many businesses. So, the $64 million question –
How do you prevent this? The best answer I know of is that the top person, usually CEO is the one who sees value in employees being encouraged to speak up where they see improvements would help the organization. This is not to say at all, that all employees need to be in agreement about every decision our business process, it says that employees input is valued and respected without fear of retribution. It also does not mean that every decision is first sent to employees before finalization. We should never expect that all employees would be capable of making senior management decisions. Additionally, there should be a stated ideology which says that employees are encouraged and have the opportunity to input, but that at the end of the day, after consideration has been given and final decisions explained transparently, the company decision often will hold and that employees are expected to fall in line – but only after the opportunity for input and understanding has been provided.
Bottom line; a healthy culture in an organization starts with the kind of behaviors and thinking that goes on at the very top level. The value of an employer encouraging employee input without fear of retribution must be clearly believed, stated and followed.
In our new recruitment model we are developing at TwoGreySuits, we take into account a matching of employee and company values, which largely addresses the “fit” question and often avoids employees going into an organization that is not open to employee input and transparency. More to come on that – stay tuned.