Member/Customer Engagement, Organizational Culture

Can Your Employees or Members Speak Freely and do they Count?

talk Can your employees (or for that matter, customers, partners, members etc.) speak freely? Do they often come up with new ideas, express criticism or suggest alternative ways for doing things? An article in the January-February 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review reports that, in spite of employers’ stated intentions for openness, most employees are reluctant to freely voice concerns or opinions. In my interviews with employees on all levels in client universities and associations, I found many who had interesting solutions to problems that had perplexed their organizations. I was struck by how many front line employees offered truly fresh insights into how things might work better, what mattered to which customers or how a practice or program was missing the mark, alienating rather than attracting and helping customers.  However, whenever I brought together cross functional teams to address a problem, and these teams included senior executives, the creative, engaged employees of my interviews became inexplicably silent. They automatically fell into passive, acquiescent roles, refraining from contributing their experiences, observations, concerns and ideas to the discussion.  As a result, not only was there a tremendous waste of human and intellectual capital but the solutions that emerged were more of the same. Studies show that employee retention is much higher in companies in which employees can speak freely and voice their concerns.  Similarly, member retention is higher for associations in which members actively engage rather than passively consume.  Beyond retention, however, the need for continuous innovation and rapid reconfiguration in our changeable environment requires a continuous flow of new ideas and resources from all directions, rather than top down: from customers, employees, open source initiatives and networks within networks.  Why then is it rare for employees to feel empowered to voice opinions and express concerns? The writers list two reasons: “A fear of consequences (embarrassment, isolation, low performance ratings, lost promotions, and even firing) and a sense of futility (the belief that saying something won’t make a difference, so why bother?). The first, fear of consequences, is what I encountered in my cross-functional teams, especially when the CEO was present. The second, a sense of futility, however, is an even greater obstacle to growth and change. My experience is full of examples:

  • Passive members who feel no motivation to participate in impersonal surveys and mass calls for member input, certain that these will never be implemented
  • Disillusioned employees – cynical about investing hours or months in one more retreat, reorganization or change initiative in which their opinions are solicited and new plans are developed only to be shelved indefinitely
  • Chapter leaders, suspicious and unwilling to cooperate when told that the association is now interested in its chapters and wants to involved them in its design of a new chapters’ model.  “Why should we trust the association this time?” one chapter leader asked.  I know that if the CEO walked in the room right now she would not recognize me or know my name. Nothing changed as a result of their last redesign efforts.”
The article lists a number of suggestions for encouraging employee engagement and honest exchange:
  • Avoid sending signals that you’re in charge. “Whether you realize it or not, you’re probably conveying your power through subtle cues.”
  • Be clear about the type of input you want
  • Provide resources for acting on the input you get. As an example of the opposite, the authors cite clients from a number of industries “who spent thousands or millions of dollars collecting ideas but then didn’t allocate a single employee to read through the data, much less design a systematic evaluation process.”
  • Create a more vocal culture in which feedback and exchanges of opinion are regular practices.
  • Reach out to solicit others’ opinions and concerns.
So are you concerned that your employees do not speak freely or actively engage in advancing your organization’s goals? Do you feel that your members are not sufficiently invested and energetically involved? Before planning a new strategy, the real question to ask is whether you want them to do so and why. Do you truly need the input you are soliciting? Do you consider it essential, for example, for breaking out of stagnation, creating a collaborative silo-proof organization, tapping others’ talents or contacts to expand your own capabilities? If you clearly see the benefit of give-and-take to your ability to survive and compete, then your motives will be authentic and the opportunities you create for interaction genuine rather than perfunctory and, hence, far more likely to succeed. If, instead, you generate what the authors call “pseudoparticipation”, that is “going through the motions of listening, with little intention of following up,” the results can be more detrimental than even settling for fearful employees or passive, disengaged members because you will have raised expectations only to crash them. The point is, you cannot elicit open communication and exchange if you believe that you already have all the answers and the flow of information or products is top down: we decide/you comply; we make/you use.  To engage in value-generating dialogue with your customers or employees, your organization itself must be open, acknowledging a need for the input it gets, identifying processes for participation and conversion of feedback into action.