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Permission to Speak – Leadership Blog – Kelly Vandever Interviews Dr. Elizabeth Morrison on Employee Voice & Encouraging Employees to Speak Up


Permission to Speak

Leadership Video Blog & Podcast

Hosted by Leadership Communications Expert Kelly Vandever

Permission to Speak is the video blog and podcast that loiters at the intersections of leaders who want their people to speak up, technology that facilitates connections, and results that serve an organization’s higher purpose.

Our guest for this episode:  Dr. Elizabeth Morrison

About Elizabeth Morrison:

Dr. Elizabeth Morrison is a Professor in the Management and Organizations Department, the ITT Harold Geneen Professor in Creative Management, and the Vice Dean of Faculty at the Stern School.

Dr. Morrison’s research focuses on different ways employees behave proactively at work, the conditions that enable such behavior, and how proactive behavior both facilitate career success and improve organizational effectiveness. Her research focuses on employee voice and silence, the reasons employees are reluctant to speak up, and how organizations can create climates more open to employee input. She has won several awards for her research, including the Cummings Scholar Award from the Organizational Behavior Division of the Academy of Management.

Dr. Morrison work has been published in the Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Organizational Behavior and Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. She has served on the Executive Committee of the Organizational Behavior Division of the Academy of Management (2008-2013) and as Associate Editor for Academy of Management Journal (2007-2010). She teaches courses in Leadership, Collaboration and Negotiation, and Organizational Behavior.


Topics Covered:

– Employee Voice is defined as when employees share an idea, concern, suggestion, or opinion about a workplace issue.

– Employee Silence is when employees have idea, concern, suggestion, or opinion and consciously withhold them.

– Utility Calculus is Dr. Morrison’s term for the measuring the cost/benefit analysis when we see an issue at work

– We weigh the benefit of something changing for the better, versus will speaking up even make a difference, versus will I get accolades for speaking up or will I look stupid or will I be seen as a complainer, how will it effect my relationship with my colleagues and with my supervisor

– People have strong beliefs about bad things that can happen to them if they speak up, and sometimes those beliefs aren’t accurate

–  As humans we’ve evolved to be aware of hierarchy and wired to be social beings and not to create friction in our social groups

– We’re socialized from an early on things like “don’t talk back,” “don’t be a tattletale,” “respect authority,” long before we enter the workplace

– Plus we make our own observations based on what we see at work

– Leaders are often oblivious to the fact that employees don’t speak up

– Leaders don’t recognize that the role itself can be intimidating

– We can assume as leaders that just because no one speaks up doesn’t mean that the team is in agreement

– People’s default is to not voice, so leaders need to be intentional about helping people speak up

– Dr. Morrison’s research found that people with low power will speak up if a leader conveyed a leadership style of openness

– Leaders need to not just say they’re open, they have to live it too, even during difficult circumstances

– Don’t shoot the messenger!

– We can’t stereotype that people from certain countries are less likely to have voice

– There are huge variances in voice, regardless of the country/organization

– One study found that extraverted leaders tend to be more defensive than introverted leaders

– Psychological safety is the degree to which people feel safe to engage in behaviors that might be risky, which includes speaking up without negative repercussions

– Leaders who routinely encourage and ask for input are more likely to get employees that come to them unsolicited, it becomes the way we do business around here

– Listening without judging, without reacting, just hear what they’re saying will keep a leader from giving off the signals that speaking up is not OK

– Telling stories is a useful way to humanize a leader, to show humility, to promote authenticity, all of which have been shown to make it easier for people to speak up

– Leaders who use “we” versus “I” can help to minimize the perception of status differences

– There is no quick fix if you have a work environment that’s created a climate of silence

– You don’t just change a culture by saying it, you have to build it into all your practices, day in and day out

– Dr. Morrison gave examples from a company she worked with

– The organization had a “safe word,” that made it OK for someone to say, “I’m going to say something controversial. Withhold judgement.”

– The organization also used something called fist to five.  To get a read on how the room was feeling, someone would call “fist to five” then the individuals would hold up their fist for not at all supportive, or 1 finger to indicate a little supportive or 5 fingers to indicate they were fully on board, etc.  It became a way of gauging the response to a situation/proposal without one person having to raise their hand and disagree

– While she hasn’t studied organizations with social enterprise tools but she believes that they do help promote sharing and openness.

– The way an employee speaks up can have negative or positive on the results

– If you’re considering speaking up, Dr. Morrison gives 3 fold advice

– 1) consider the timing, there are times that are better than other for raising an issue, it’s better to raise issues early on, time of day to raise the issue, in the hallway or set aside a time, look for time when the leader is most likely to be open and have the time and space to process what you’re saying

– 2) framing, how you frame the situation can make a big difference in how it’s received, why you’re raising the issue and how the information can be used.  Make it clear what your motive is.

– 3)  tone, the way you say it, understanding the communication norms in the environment, being respective and polite even if you’re trying to say “you’re wrong”

– While there could be an organization that has too much voice, more so the issue is too much silence; too much voice not a pressing problem in organizations

– Millennials are just as likely to be silent as other generations

– The effect on the individual of speaking up

– Recent research of Dr. Morrison’s indicates that speaking up is more likely to have the person  seen more positively rather than more negatively, despite people’s concern about how they’ll be seen as they speak up

– The positive impact of being listened to and what it does for the individual

– Voice is good for the organization but it’s also good for the employee’s wellbeing

– Best estimates are that only 50% of employees who witness wrongdoing bring it to someone’s attention

– Not speaking up can have serious consequences for the individual, keeping them up at night, eating away at them, it takes an emotional toll

– This field of research is something that resonates with people both from the employee and leadership perspective


Questions Answered:

– What can I do as a leader to get my employees to speak up more?

– Does my willingness to be open as a leader impact whether or not my employees will speak up?

– What’s the impact to the organization if employees don’t speak up?

-What’s the impact on individual employees when they don’t speak up?

– What is meant by employee voice?

– What is meant by employee silence?

– How can I encourage a more open environment at work?

– How can I create a more open culture at work?

– How can I safely raise a concern to my supervisor?

– How can I safely raise a problem to my manager?

– How can I raise issues to executives?

– Are there things a manager can do to encourage employees to speak up?