We are often told to listen more. You know, the “you have two ears and one mouth” bromide.
But as managers, we can’t listen unless people first feel free to talk to us about important things. Many people won’t talk, even when encouraged to do so. Why is this?
According to HBS Working Knowledge, a prime reason is fear. More precisely, a fear of speaking up to internal authorities.
This summary of research by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and Penn State professor James Detert makes for fascinating reading; here’s a sample:
Turning to the modern economy, most of us depend on hierarchical organizations and their agents (i.e., bosses) to meet many of our basic needs for economic support and human relationships. Thus, fear of offending those above us is both natural and widespread. One way we can get in trouble with those above us is to speak up in ways perceived as challenging of authority or critical of cherished programs. Given the exaggerated and real reasons to fear offending authorities, it isn’t surprising that people clam up when the signals seem unfavorable.
How does a manager work to create a better environment to encourage people to speak up (what the authors call “upward voice”)? According to the authors, there are two things. One is allaying a concern that one taking on significant risk of personal harm (e.g., embarrassment, loss of material resources). The other is to listen and follow up on things said so next time a person does not feel that time is being wasted by talking.
Have you ever been in a meeting where you had something important to say, but didn’t?
So, apparently, have your direct reports. Maybe even today.