Recent events across the U.S. have prompted many firms to invest new energy in addressing racism and inequality in their organizations.
But what will it take to sustain this momentum long after Black Lives Matter protests no longer dominate the news?
One solution may lie in the value of employee voice within organizations, said Hemant Kakkar, assistant professor of management at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
Research has shown the value employee voice brings to collaboration, innovation and revenues. And although encouraging employee feedback has an obvious business case, Kakkar urges leaders to recognize its role in creating a sense of fairness and social justice in an organization.
“Creating space for employees to voice their concerns not only helps employees express their discontent, but also give them a sense that they can do something about the current situation,” he said recently offering suggestions for leaders on LinkedIn Live.
Establish a judgment-free space for discussion
Research shows the most effective thing a leader can do to encourage employee voice is to give workers a sense of psychological safety, Kakkar said. A work culture where employees feel safe to voice their concerns can lead to better performance, morale and satisfaction among employees.
This becomes increasingly important as employees experience tumultuous events, such as COVID-19 and the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, and other events that display systemic racism against Black Americans, Kakkar said, as these events have a deeply personal impact.
As a rule, employees should feel comfortable that they won’t be judged and that their feedback won’t come back to affect their reviews or other measures of performance, he said.
Respond carefully and follow through
When responding to suggestions, even those that are off-base or not carefully thought-out, a leader’s job is to listen and offer constructive feedback when possible, Kakkar said.
Responding negatively is “essentially curtailing their contribution of future suggestions, which could be critical,” he said. A review of research on employee voice emphasizes that an employee’s confidence is key to them speaking up, so leaders should respond thoughtfully, he said.
Research has shown that long-term, creating a culture that doesn’t support employee voice can lead to higher turnover, Kakkar said.
Reject common excuses for not speaking up
Talking about race and justice is uncomfortable and emotional for many people, and there are several fallacies people hold onto to excuse their silence, Kakkar said.
One belief is that if you don’t belong to an aggrieved group, you don’t have license to speak up about issues that affect that community. But studies have emphasized the importance of participation from all people in discussions about equality, such as men’s involvement in discussions about gender parity.
If you have something to say and you withhold that information, this can keep others quiet, too, Kakkar said.
“Others take a cue from you and they also decide not to speak up, and this sets up this domino effect of lack of information flow within the groups, teams and organizations where no one is speaking about the issues at hand,” Kakkar said, citing research from Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. “She describes this phenomenon very tellingly as 'spirals of silence', and once they are set in motion, this ensures they propagate the status quo.”
Another famous piece of research in psychology documents the ‘bystander effect’ – what happens when lots of people observe a problem but assume that others who are also aware of the issue will do something to address it, Kakkar said.
Kakkar points to his own research to dispel two other common ideas that keep people from speaking up. Some may believe they need a mountain of evidence to support their perspective. But more is not always better, his research shows. One strong argument may be more persuasive than weaker examples added for quantity’s sake, he said.
He also says people who are naturally introverted or risk-averse may let their quieter personalities hold them back. But in his research, Kakkar has found that regardless of personality, if an employee is expected to speak up as part of their role in an organization, they will meaningfully contribute regardless of personality.
“I want to underscore that it is really up to us to make sure we as employees and leaders speak up about social issues, and organizations offer a forum to ensure employee voices are heard,” Kakkar said. “Otherwise, it can lead to a spiral of silence, and staying silent propagates the status quo.”