Good Read: Can Your Employees Speak Freely?

James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burris, Review By: Janet Schulz

At Baird Group, as we work with organizations to transform their cultures and improve the patient experience, a key strategy we discuss is employee input. So when I saw this Harvard Business Review article, Can Your Employees Really Speak Freely?, by James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burris (January-February 2016), it piqued my interest.

As I read the article, I found myself feeling sad. The concepts and knowledge presented in it were not “new,” or rare. Sadly, what is rare is the excellence in execution.

The article provides a solid review of the key barriers, leader behaviors and attitudes that get in the way of truly tapping the power of employee input. Overall, the authors note that two factors: fear of consequences and a sense of futility, as key culprits.

The authors recap leader actions (or inactions) that either feed the sense of fear, or reinforce the sense of futility. 

Fear is fed when:

  • Feedback is sought “anonymously,” thereby implying a lack of safety
  • “Open door” policies are vague and require walking by assistants whose job it is to tightly manage executive schedules
  • Physical cues (either leader body language or office design) that reinforces the power gradient between leader and employee

A sense of futility is reinforced by:

  • Leaders who themselves do not model the courage to speak up and address ideas or concerns
  • Leaders being imprecise in asking for employee input – leading to ideas being offered but not acted upon because the feedback was not in sync with the insights a leader needed for a project or problem
  • Organizations that ask for ideas, but devote no resources for review or implementation of them

The article then shares some “best practices” from the authors’ experience and research to generating and fueling a more “vocal culture”. Not surprisingly, two suggestions include to “make feedback a regular, casual exchange” and “to reach out”. These suggestions are in sync with routine Leader Rounding, a frequent recommendation we make at Baird Group. For leaders that thoughtfully design their rounding practices, the payback can be huge. Not only are employees more apt to share insights about processes or early warnings about concerns, the leaders are more prone to stay in touch with the voice of both patient and employee customers. Other “best practices” listed by the authors include close attention to transparency, making an effort to “soften power cues,” avoiding “mixed messages” (e.g. – asking for input but dismissing it if not done in a certain format), leaders serving as examples of diplomatic input, and . . . a true key . . . “closing the loop.”

As noted earlier, the article does not break a lot of new ground, but it certainly does till the soil. It provides a great review of what can go wrong, and what can really go right, as leaders tap into the people who know their organization best—the frontline staff.

To read the full HBR article click here.

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