At a glance
Two defining trends swept through workplaces globally in 2022.
First, millions of people quit their jobs in a mass walkout dubbed the “Great Resignation”. Second, disillusioned workers decided to do the bare minimum needed to keep their job in a social movement known as “quiet quitting”.
Observers have attributed these twin phenomena to various factors, including low engagement, toxic work culture, the fallout from the pandemic and a rejection of the culture of overwork.
James Detert, John L. Colley professor of business administration at the University of Virginia, believes both issues stem from the same problem – organisational silence. Organisational silence is when employees do not speak up at crucial moments to share their insights, ideas or issues.
According to Detert, when workers are unhappy in their current job and believe they cannot speak up, they tend to reduce their effort and suffer in silence, or they leave.
Detert identifies four broad fears that drive organisational silence among workers – economic or career consequences, social exclusion, psychological pain or, in extreme cases, physical harm.
How an employee feels about their role and the organisation is critical information for employers, which they can use to to boost engagement and halt the exodus of talent.
However, as Detert explains, reluctance among employees to speak honestly in the workplace means these insights are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain.
Create a safe space
Organisations keen to gain honest feedback from employees must first create a culture of psychological safety, a term that describes the belief that one can speak up without fear of punishment or humiliation.
In practice, psychological safety enables employees to speak up without fear of retaliation in a culture that values employee honesty, particularly regarding critical or sensitive feedback.
Jen Jackson, founder of management consultancy Everyday Massive, says that organisations trying to embed psychological safety within their workplaces should foster a culture that prioritises human connection.
At Everyday Massive, connection happens via specific events. They include a daily 10-minute huddle each morning, the annual croquet tournament and a quarterly full-day event where the morning is spent analysing performance and the afternoon is devoted to a team activity.
Each week, a different team runs a 30-minute catch-up known as “MoMoMe” (short for Monday Morning Meeting), where the discussion aligns to an organisational value. “We’ve had everything from someone bringing their dad in to talk about managing stress to imagining the future to getting our hands dirty with clay,” Jackson says.
Strong relationships help create the trust necessary to discuss sensitive issues. “When we have great connections within the team, not just on a professional level but on a human level, we’re able to have those tough conversations,” she says.
Communicating with Impact
Seek honest feedback
In this environment, leaders seek the views and ideas of others from a position of curiosity rather than judgement. Everyone is a learner, and leaders seek feedback on an ongoing basis rather than via one-off anonymous surveys.
Jackson says that, while tools such as pulse checks and 360-reviews can provide useful data around engagement, people often “hide behind technology”, particularly when anonymised.
“Nothing beats a face-to-face conversation,” she says. “That comes back to the manager or leader building in regular rituals and touchpoints to get first-person feedback.”
Ezard agrees. “The strongest cultures don’t need to rely on surveys because the open dialogue is already there,” she says.
Close the loop
What an organisation does with an employee’s feedback is critical.
“If they share something with a leader and then that confidence is broken, if it comes back to bite them, if they get a ‘slap across the wrist’ rather than a genuine, ‘OK, how do we fix this?’, then people are going to be scared. They’re going to push everything under the carpet,” says Ezard. “The psychological safety isn’t there.”
Leaders can inadvertently invalidate a person’s contribution through dismissive language. “They can say, ‘No, that’s not right’, or, ‘That’s not how we do it’, or, ‘That will never work’,” says Ezard.
Demonstrating a willingness to listen in the phrasing of a response – for example, “That’s an interesting insight, I hadn’t thought about that”, or “I’m really interested in your perspective” – lessens the perceived risk in disclosing sensitive feedback and improves the sense of safety.
While Ezard says feedback should be treated as both a gift and an opportunity, she also acknowledges that organisations “can’t always action feedback – that’s the reality of leading”.
Both Ezard and Jackson emphasise the importance of “closing the loop” by updating employees on any conversations or changes that have occurred due to their feedback.
If change is not possible, explain why, says Ezard. It is critical to assure people that they have not participated in a “box-ticking” exercise.
“It’s vital for people to see that their voice actually matters.”