Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

Okay, now that we got your attention, we do, in fact, mean that, but with some major caveats. Allow us to explain.

Over the last several years, both academics and those of you in the field, have talked more and more about this notion of Employee Voice. It’s a straightforward concept. Simply, it means inviting and encouraging employees to converse and engage in addressing organizational problems and challenges. There is a prevailing view out there that the more employee voice, the better, and healthier the organization. We disagree.

Perhaps the worst way to imagine employee voice is to view it as a one-way communication stream—one where employees communicate to management. That’s weak. A stronger way to conceptualize employee voice is to get some two-way communication going. Here, employees and managers speak and listen to each other in a productive, healthy, and constructive manner. However, this stage of employee voice can be especially problematic. When employees believe that managers are listening, they begin to get their hopes up. When those hopes are dashed by a lack of action or follow-thru, employee voice can quiet quickly. Morale often tanks, and cynicism usually surges. There’s a third way—a better way—to enact employee voice.

ELP can help foster a dynamic where employee voice is enacted correctly—in a way that is sustainable. First, invite employees to communicate and challenge management. More specifically, encourage them to avoid voicing about people and focusing instead on processes, procedures, or systems. Second, leaders should listen to this voice and challenge back in a professional way. But, we’d argue, that a third step is the most important step. It is the follow-thru step. Here, you set appropriate expectations and then deliver on them.

Take, for example, a client who added this third step to their communication system. Notably, this client would conduct quarterly communication meetings with all employees. Here, the General Manager would relay information. At the end of his communication, the General Manager would allow plenty of time to hear the voices of his 1100 employees. Just recently, though, they started to capture action items from this dialogue. Within about a week, the management team would send out a newsletter along with communication down through first line supervisors that would state the following—“This is what we think we heard during the communication meetings, and based on our resources, we are going to pursue answers for the following three items: a, b and c. We promise to share what we found with you at our next communication meeting.” And that’s what they do. Because of this, there are fewer “false-hopes,” expectations are clear, and the employees know and feel that their voices are heard. Even if the action items, resulting from their input, don’t result in a change of policy, they at least have the courtesy of the follow-up. They feel valued, and are likely to continue with a constructive voice.

Whatever you do, don’t ask or solicit an employee’s voice if you aren’t going to respond—either in dialogue or in action. Employees ONLY deserve a voice when managers and leaders are committed to valuing it. Without that, it is a hollow exercise. So, listen, act, and follow through on initiatives and efforts to capture the voices of your employees.

Of course, to hear the preeminent voice on employee voice, call Robin Bichy, an ELP founder and principal, at 703.999.5676 to learn more.