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Can Employees Really Speak Up Without Retribution?

oct16-18-536907509

When employees Speak up, companies benefit. Thus not surprisingly, lots of leaders say they want to encourage their employees to speak freely, whether it’s by offering creative new ideas, identifying process improvements, or even calling out unethical behavior. But several studies suggest that leaders often undermine their own efforts to get employees to speak up.

Research by Ethan Burris, for example, has shown that leaders generally react quite negatively to employees who challenge them, even when employees do so constructively. Employees trying to resist certain changes or demands in non-hostile and constructive conversations are more likely to be labeled poor performers by their supervisors.

In ongoing research we are still conducting, we are finding that supervisor retaliation can go further than that. In a recent study, we examined the question whether those employees who speak up to their supervisors in constructive yet challenging ways are confronted with more abusive leadership.

We collected data from employees across a wide array of different industries in Belgium. Email invitations were sent to employees of these organizations requesting their participation in a web-based survey. These employees were then asked to invite a coworker familiar with their work to participate as well. We ended up with 138 employee-coworker dyads (for a total of 276 subjects). The employees answered questions about how abusive their supervisor was, while the coworkers answered questions about how much constructive resistance the employee showed towards his or her supervisor. Our analyses (while controlling for differences in education and industry) revealed that the more that employees were perceived by coworkers to show constructive resistance towards their supervisors, the more likely the employees were to rate their supervisors on a validated scale as showing abusive behavior towards them. Examples of abusive behavior included asking whether their supervisor ridiculed them, were rude, invaded their privacy, or gave them the silent treatment.

For managers who want to avoid these pitfalls and foster a speaking up culture, the research suggests several takeaways. One important one is to actively embrace constructive conflict. Rather than waiting for employees to speak up – thus risking their own professional reputations – start a debate. A structured debate can force multiple perspectives out into the open.

Another is to regulate your emotions. Whenever you feel threatened by something an employee says, think about whether you want to escalate a potential conflict further before you react. Don’t shy away from stating — in a direct and constructive way – your own point of view. But don’t let negative emotions come pouring out.

Finally, be aware of cultural differences. In some cultures, speaking directly is the norm; in others, people will say nothing but still mean something. In some cultures, for example, subordinates may not challenge leaders openly but may still disagree with you. In others, a blunt critique may just be the start of a good discussion.

For employees trying to speak up, we suggest starting by building trust. The simplest way to do this? Be good at your job. The primary cue for leaders to trust their employees is that those employees show that they are competent in the work they do. Of course, cultural differences in building trust also exist. In many Western countries, the idea exists that initially trust needs to be given by the leader to see how well employees will do, whereas in many Asian countries, it is tradition that the leader expects their subordinates to show that they deserve his or her trust.7

It’s also important to speak up as early as possible. If you do not provide feedback as early as possible, conflicts and frustrations are likely to build up, which ultimately may result in abusive responses.

Finally, of course, employees also have to regulate their emotions. Try to come across as a professional by being in control, and adopting a cooperative attitude. Make clear that you understand the complexity of your leader´s job and that you speak up to create joint value.

Building speaking up cultures is, on the whole, a good thing. However, senior leaders should be wary of encouraging employees to speak up without also training their middle managers in how to respond. Wise companies encourage both their managers and their employees to communicate candidly, without dysfunctional repercussions.



This post first appeared on 5 Basic Needs Of Virtual Workforces, please read the originial post: here

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Can Employees Really Speak Up Without Retribution?

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