When Employees Are Afraid to Speak Up, Organizations Suffer

It seems pretty obvious: If something is going wrong at work, you should speak up about it.

Unfortunately, very few employees do, according to a new study from training company VitalSmarts. Lead by VitalSmarts Cochairman and Cofounder Joseph Grenny and Vice President of Research David Maxfield, the study found that a scant 1 percent of employees feel "extremely confident" when it comes to voicing their concerns in the workplace at critical moments. Furthermore, a third of employees say their organizations do no promote or support holding crucial conversations.

According to Maxfield, employees avoid voicing concerns at work when they don't feel safe doing so.

"Most of the time, the reason [people] fail to speak up is they feel the stakes are so high and other people are so opposed to what they might say that it doesn't feel safe to speak up," he explains.

This insecurity and the employee reticence it engenders are more than corporate inconveniences. According to Maxfield and Grenny's research, an employee's failure to raise their concerns about a project or workplace situation costs an organization an average of $7,500 in lost time and resources. Furthermore, the average employee spends more than seven workdays fretting about the problem instead of coming forward with their issues.

In extreme cases, "conversation failures" as the study calls them can cost companies even more. Maxfield gives one example of a global engineering construction firm losing almost a billion dollars on a project even though engineers working on the project knew it was going to fail. Those engineers simply didn't speak up.

"We asked [1,025] people to think of situations like this, and they all came up with situations," Maxfield says, suggesting the problem is widely spread.

As long as employees see it as safer to "duck and cover" than to speak up, organizations will continue losing money on faulty projects, Maxfield says. These companies are also likely to see higher turnover rates, as environments that make employees feel unsafe in voicing their concerns are also likely to lower morale and engagement.

"It's just so easy to stay quiet," Maxfield says. "And when you talk to people about it, they'll say, 'Hey, it wasn't my job to speak up. I'm not the boss.' As if it's only the job of the boss to speak up!"

Turning the Tide: Fostering Environments That Encourage Crucial Conversations

If your organization suffers from this problem, the situation is not hopeless. Maxfield says there are a number of things that both individual employees and company leadership can do to turn it around and create the kind of work environment that actively encourages and values employee voices.

On the Individual Level:

1. Reverse Your Thinking

Typically, when faced with risks, we focus on the short-term risks to ourselves at the expense of the long-term, broadly shared risks. According to Maxfield, that's just human nature.

"When we're faced with a saber-toothed cat, we won't look anywhere but at the saber-toothed cat," he says.

So Maxfield's first piece of advice is to reverse your thinking: Instead of focusing on the risks of speaking up, start thinking about the risks of not speaking up. Chances are these latter risks are more damaging to more people.

2. Change Your Emotions

By the time most people are fretting over whether or not they should speak up, they've already been holding the concern inside for long enough that it has begun to "fester and turn ugly," Maxfield says.

"At this point, they start telling themselves ugly stories about the person they need to speak up to," he continues. "So you start to think your boss is an ogre who will explode in anger and fire you on the spot."

Maxfield says you need to challenge the story you've concocted. Instead, view the person to whom you need to speak as a "reasonable, rational, and decent person."

"Ask yourself the following question: Why might a reasonable, rational, decent person end up with [a bad project plan]?" Maxfield says. "It's not that they are evil – it's probably that they are uninformed, or others haven't been frank with them, or someone made an arithmetic mistake."

Once you've convinced yourself to view your boss (or whomever you must speak to) as a reasonable person, you'll find the prospect of speaking up much less daunting.

3. Make Others Feel Safe

If you struggle with speaking up, it's probably because you feel unsafe doing so. Don't perpetuate that cycle by making other people feel unsafe as well.

"The military has a saying: Salute the flag before you disagree with your commanding officer," Maxfield says. "What it means is show respect for their role, position, and point of view. At the same time, when you salute the flag, you're reminding them that you serve under the same flag. You want what they want."

Approach difficult conversations the same way. Frame your concerns in terms of project or organizational success. Make it clear that you'd like to share your concerns out of respect and a mutual desire for success.

4. Invite Dialogue

Instead of kicking down your boss's door and demanding they listen to you, start a genuine dialogue.

"Don't assume you have the right answer and they better darn well listen," Maxfield says. "Share your facts, share your point of view, and ask for theirs. Respect theirs. Listen to what they have to say. Maybe they have a very different point of view or a different set of facts. Be open to changing your mind."

On the Organizational Level:

1. Lead the Way

Organizational leaders who genuinely want employees to feel safe speaking up need to model the behavior themselves and reward employees who follow suit.

"It's not enough just to not bite people's heads off when they speak to you," Maxfield says. "People won't see it. They won't see the dog that failed to bark. You have to make a point that you want people to speak up."

The best way to make that point in a way that sticks with people is to make a sacrifice, Maxfield says. Typically, this takes the form of an "ego sacrifice," in which a leader broadcasts that they were in the wrong and publicly praises the employee who showed them the error of their ways.

For example, Maxfield cites a helicopter crash that occurred at a hospital he was working with. Despite the magnitude of the crash and a subsequent fire, everyone made it out okay and no lives were lost. As a result, the senior leadership was pretty proud of itself.

But in the middle of their celebration, a woman stormed into the room. She was furious and ready to resign. Why? Because she was the only person in the hospital licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to handle an air emergency – and no one had even told her about the situation as it was happening.

"If anything had gone wrong, you'd all be in jail and I'd be testifying against you," she said.

The CEO recognized that she was right. So, he called an all-hands meeting the next day and publicly admitted his mistakes while praising the employee for her courage to speak out. This showed other employees that the CEO was serious about following proper protocols and that they shouldn't hesitate to approach him in the future if they had their own concerns to raise.

Maxfield also notes that a "priority sacrifice" can be equally as effective. For example, if the emir of Kuwait shows up unexpectedly while you're in the middle of a prescheduled employee feedback meeting, don't cancel the meeting. Ask the emir to wait. (Believe it or not, this is based on a real-life example that Maxfield shared.)

2. Give People the Skills They Need to Speak Up

Many of your employees may not be speaking up because they don't quite know how to do so in a reasonable and respectful manner. It's up to the organization to provide them with the training and resources they need to learn this valuable skill.

"My father used to say these are the kind of skills you learn at your mother's knee or some other low joint," Maxfield says. "People don't have these skills. They don't know how to speak up without being angry, and our culture is one where you don't typically speak up unless you're angry. People would rather call the cops than talk to their neighbor about their garbage cans!"

3. Find a Way to Measure the Problem

As the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed. The same holds true when it comes to encouraging employees to speak out – but there's an added complication.

"We have all kinds of measures of organizational performance, and I'll call those 'above the water line measures': they're explicit, everyone sees them, and they're obvious," Maxfield says. "But we also need to track the 'below the water line' stuff that's going on that is less tangible."

As an example, Maxfield references the work he's done with the U.S. Army in trying to reduce sexual assault. This is, of course, a particularly severe example of what happens when people are afraid to speak out, but it holds important lessons regardless.

"They're measuring frequency of assault, but at the same time, they realize that sexual assault is way underreported," Maxfield says. "Imagine they put out a system that says, 'We need to reduce sexual assaults, so we're going to track the numbers in your units, and we want these numbers to go down.' Trust me – the numbers would go down, but would it be for the right reasons?"

What Maxfield means is this: Some units might report lower numbers not because incidents of sexual assault had actually gone down, but because those units were purposely underreporting. To prevent that from happening, the army has also put in place some "below the water line" measures, including the following three questions:

- If you were at risk of being assaulted, are you confident your peers would come to your aid?

- Are you confident that if you reported an assault, your line of command would treat you fairly and you wouldn't be retailed against?

- Are you confident the senior leader of your command is doing everything they can to reduce assault?

"So imagine two units: Both units report numbers going down, but in one unit, these questions are answered 'yes'; in the other unit, they are answered 'no,'" Maxfield explains. "That will change how you interpret what is going on."

The point is that organizations need to develop similar "below the water line" measures to ensure that employees really feel safer and more encouraged to speak out when they feel the need to do so.

"Do you feel if you spoke up, you'd be listened to, heard, and treated fairly? Those questions in an organization would give you pretty good insight into whether or not the 'above the line' measures are truly accurate," Maxfield says.