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5 Reasons Why You Don’t Speak Up at Work

How does courage show up and what makes it so challenging to speak up at work? How can leaders build teams of Microinnovators, Problems Solvers, and Customer Advocates? It’s one thing to have an opinion, but let’s look at the data.

The tendency towards “safe silence” 

Any discussion about courage at work quickly leads to Amy Edmondson. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. She describes how courage at work shows up when someone speaks up, challenges an idea, shares a different perspective, or reveals a mistake. Every one of these behaviors takes courage because, as Edmondson says, people default to “avoiding failure”—the loss of status, being labeled, or being viewed with disfavor that can result from speaking up. Until you build a Courageous Culture, “people at work are vulnerable to a kind of implicit logic in which safe is simply better than sorry.”

It’s possible to change the culture and make the shift from safe silence to consistent contribution. We conducted our research to find out how these human tendencies show up and to find practical answers to help you build a Courageous Culture.

We found five reasons that people don’t speak up to contribute solutions, suggest microinnovations, or advocate for customers:

  1. People don’t think leadership wants their ideas.
  2. No one asks.
  3. They lack confidence to share.
  4. They lack the skills to share effectively.
  5. People don’t think anything will happen, so they don’t bother. Let’s look at each of these more closely.

1. People don’t think leadership wants their ideas.

Executives, managers, and employees described what happened when they approached their boss with a great idea and an executable plan to improve the business. In many cases, their boss agreed their concept would work and was doable, but then they were told to go back and do things “the old way.” Forty-one percent of survey respondents said leadership doesn’t value innovation, and 67 percent said leadership operates on the notion that “this is how we’ve always done it.” Why this matters: If employees don’t think you really want their ideas, they won’t bother to offer them. Your best thinkers are still thinking, but not about your business. They’re starting a side gig, getting proficient at their hobby, or figuring out their next move.

2. No one asks.

One significant reason employees say they don’t share what they think is that “no one asked.” An astonishing 49 percent of employees surveyed said that they are not regularly asked for their ideas. And 35 percent said they were never asked for their ideas when initially trained for their role. We heard from many managers who acknowledged that frontline employee microinnovations and customer service enhancements are vital for success, but they lack any regular way to ask for ideas. Why this matters: You might think you’re asking for ideas because you have an open-door policy or your company has a sophisticated suggestion system. But that’s not enough for most employees to feel that they’ve been genuinely invited to contribute. Asking well requires a cadence of regularly asking for specific insights and ideas.

3. They lack confidence to share.

Forty percent of respondents said they don’t feel confident sharing their ideas. That’s not surprising considering how often managers (not just frontline employees) said they were told to keep their heads down and just do their work:

“I didn’t hire you to fix our company.”

“It’s not your job to think about that.”

“I didn’t ask you for your ideas.”

“The problem is that we have too many ideas. I don’t want any more.”

Why this matters: It’s far easier to default to safe silence, and people remember the stressful times more than the time they spoke up and their idea was heard. There are a wide range of reasons why employees lose confidence, from toxic management behaviors to insecurities they’re bringing with them from home. You need to be deliberate in understanding what’s crushing people’s courage and work to eliminate the real and imagined barriers preventing the humans on your team from contributing their best thinking.

4. They lack the skills to share effectively.

In many cases, employees simply don’t know how to speak up in a way that can be heard. “In hindsight, I really hadn’t done all the research.” “I think I came into my new role a bit too gung ho. I had so many ideas—I think they thought I was cocky and critical.” Interestingly, 45 percent said there’s currently no training available at their organization for problem solving and critical thinking.

Why this matters: Even if you’re hiring experienced managers, chances are they haven’t been trained to think critically, solve complex problems, or to encourage microinnovation and problem solving on their teams. And these skills are not intuitive for most people. If you want people to proactively identify and solve problems or find more innovative solutions, you’ve got to train them. If you want people to advocate for the customer, you need to give them the skills to know how to do that well from a balanced business perspective and give them parameters to help guide their decision-making.

5. People don’t think anything will happen, so they don’t bother.

One of the most significant issues, even in some of the highest performing organizations, is that people are convinced their ideas will be ignored. We heard from many managers who echoed this financial services executive: People bring up something once or twice. If it isn’t acknowledged then we’ll invariably come across an issue that’s been out there for a while. We’ll say, “Oh my gosh, why didn’t we see this?” And we’ll hear back, “Oh, we did see it, but we told so-and-so and he didn’t do anything with it.” Fifty percent of the employees we surveyed said they believe that if they share an idea, it won’t be taken seriously. And the number one reason people said they would keep a microinnovation to themselves (56 percent) is concern that they would not get credit for their idea.

Why this matters: You may be asking for ideas and even doing something with them, but if there’s no feedback loop, employees will assume nothing is happening. And no one wants to make contributions that aren’t recognized or valued. It’s human nature to stop trying and redirect energy where you believe it will do some good. Our research is filled with examples of smart, creative people, even at the executive level, who made deliberate decisions to stop bringing new ideas because they felt it was a waste of time.

Karin Hurt and David Dye

Recently named on Inc’s list of Most Innovative Leadership Speakers and American Management Association’s 50 Leaders to Watch, Karin Hurt helps leaders from around the world achieve breakthrough results without losing their souls.

David works with leaders around the world who want to achieve breakthrough results without losing their soul (or mind) in the process. They are the award-winning authors of Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates (Harper Collins 2020), Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul,

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