People aren’t speaking up nearly as much as they’d like to at work. One 2017 study finds that just 1% of employees feel “extremely confident” to air their concerns, and roughly 33% believe their organizations don’t support speaking up broadly as a habit.
Over the past few years, psychologists have tacked on a name for this behavior: employee voice. This is upward communication that is constructive in its intent, but challenging in its content. And it’s about as high-stakes as behaviors get. Field experiments among hospital workers have shown that increasing people’s capacity for voice can reduce errors and save patients’ lives. (In the US alone, approximately 400,000 people die as a result of medical errors involving miscommunication.)
While our research team initially started studying voice as a way of addressing harassment and other high-stakes breaches of ethics, we discovered that speaking up doesn’t just discourage problematic behaviors; it encourages positive ones like creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving. That means when leaders create the conditions for voice, they can make smarter, more creative decisions and root out questionable behaviors before they fester into something larger.
People don’t lead in a vacuum. A wide body of research has found that the experience of being in power actually changes the brain. High-status people largely lose their ability to take others’ perspectives; they start focusing more on goals rather than people, and they take more risks in pursuit of executing on their vision. The result: Leaders tend to be less likely to seek out alternative opinions from others.
Additional research has found that people run into some predictable obstacles to voice when they witness questionable behavior. For example, groups often fall victim to the “diffusion of responsibility,” in which each member of the group assumes another person will speak up, so no one actually does. People have also been found to rationalize their silence because of fears of retribution or punishment, both to themselves and others.
Taken together, the data paint a clear picture that it’s not so easy to say something just because you saw something.
With that science in mind, we’ve concluded that people speak up mostly according to the risks and benefits they’ve assigned to voice—a finding that obliges leaders to create the right conditions in their culture. Specifically, they should be making it feel safer to call things out, and less threatening to get called out.
They can do this through specific habits. For example, at the top of every meeting, the most high-status person in the room can let everyone know they welcome input from the group. They might even go so far as to highlight research showing that people who speak up more are, in turn, viewed as higher-status by their peers. (Even if the person who spoke up was wrong, the fact they spoke up likely bodes well for their reputation.)
Similarly, when leaders withhold their own opinion until the end of a group discussion about how to approach a problem, team members are likely to suggest a wider array of alternative solutions than if the leader had chimed in first.
Scripts can be useful when developing a habit that involves minimizing threat. Phrases like “I don’t mean to challenge your status, but…” and “For the sake of this project, …” explicitly try to defuse any possible threat and highlight the larger goal. From there, both sides can feel more comfortable knowing their status won’t be threatened just because of a difficult conversation.
When leaders make an active effort to solicit others’ views, they hold the power to radically shift how their organization functions. Without false expertise plaguing meetings and silence reigning in moments of questionable behavior, teams will feel empowered to freely debate new ideas, approach colleagues with confidence, and develop greater individual senses of agency. In addition, voice-rich cultures tend to be ones of consequence, since people know they’ll be held accountable for their ideas and actions.
Getting to such a state may be harder than it seems, since most managers probably think they already know where (or who) their good ideas come from. That’s why, along with deep insights from science, voice also requires a dose of humility. It requires an understanding from leaders that people can surprise them in extraordinary ways, and maybe all they need is the encouragement to speak up.
Khalil Smith and David Rock are executives at the NeuroLeadership Institute and Chris Weller is an editor there.