What Makes Employee Voice Stronger?

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Prof. He Peng

Employees giving voice to opinions and suggestions is risky but beneficial to an organisation. Professor He Peng from School of Management Fudan University analyses what makes employees go silent and how leader behavioural integrity can break that silence.

Related research: Peng, H., Wei, F. How and When Does Leader Behavioral Integrity Influence Employee Voice? The Roles of Team Independence Climate and Corporate Ethical Values. (2019).

In her blog post that went viral in February 2017, Susan J. Fowler revealed what happened when she repeatedly voiced her criticism for the prevalent gender discrimination and sexual harassment at Uber, of which she was a victim. Fowler’s story plays out like a broken record, stuck at Fowler voicing her concerns to management and HR, and repeatedly getting ignored. Her story reveals a pattern – of HR and management pedalling lies, wrangling the truth to their convenience to serve private political games, and of unclear management priorities as a result of differences between organisational and managers’ personal goals. In the era of the knowledge-based economy where employee voice is crucial to an organisation’s survival, where organisations must leverage employee initiatives to carry on, Prof. Peng’s latest research highlights the relationship between a leader’s behavioural integrity and employee voice.

Understanding employee voice

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Not just a cog in the machine

An employee’s voice can be a revolutionary tool. Yet, it is not a default choice; employees often withhold suggestions or advice when they may have ideas, concerns, or opinions. Regarded as a key factor that influences creativity and effectiveness at the individual, team and organisational level, employee voice improves effective decision making, organisational learning and improvement, implementation of new practices and better organisational innovation. So why keep it to yourself? Prof. Peng unravels this mystery. He insists that one of the important reasons for withholding advice or suggestions is that voice is a sort of extra upward communication that challenges and seeks to change the status quo although its intention may be constructive. Employee voice may affect other people’s feelings, egos, or work routines. Broadly speaking, employee voice is inherently a very risky endeavour. Prof. Peng’s research finds that a leader’s behavioural integrity helps foster it – when leaders walk the talk, employees are more likely to speak up. What’s more, Prof. Peng reveals that team-level climate and the level of corporate ethical values can impact this relationship.

Speaking up: a risky business

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I dare, therefore I am

Interestingly enough, employee voice was conceptualised as a response to job dissatisfaction in its infancy. However, soon it took on a more profound definition.  “Employee voice is a form of extra-role behaviour”, Prof. Peng explains, “which refers to informal and discretionary communication by an employee of ideas, suggestions, concerns, information about problems, or opinions about work-related issues to persons who might be able to take appropriate action, with the intent to bring about improvement or change”. Voicing suggestions or opinions in the workplace requires honesty and is risky in nature. And although speaking up may lead to improvement and demonstrate an employee’s competence or creativity, it has the potential to upset leaders. Leaders tend to want to insist on established procedures or practices given that they have invested significant time and effort in putting them in place. It is also not surprising, Prof. Peng claims, if leaders feel a strong psychological ownership of the procedures they have established. In this light, if an employee decides to voice their opinions or suggestions, leaders may feel challenged and consider these opinions as a criticism to their own managerial competence, and as result label employees as ‘negative’ or ‘untrustworthy’. It is no wonder then that employees are often uncertain about how their managers may react to suggestions and thus consider speaking up risky. “It is very important for organizations to create environments in which employees feel safe by encouraging them to speak freely, honestly, and openly”, Prof. Peng insists. This is where leaders’ behavioural integrity comes in to play.

When leaders walk the talk

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These leadership boots are made for walking

Confusion over what leader behavioural integrity means has haunted researchers. For Prof. Peng, behavioural integrity is “the perceived pattern of alignment between an actor’s words and deeds”. Observations overtime help develop an employees’ perception of leader behavioural integrity. For leaders this means, perceived promise-keeping and the degree of match between espoused and enacted values, usually associated to virtuous behaviour. Prof. Peng points out the overarching influence of leader behavioural integrity. It not only affects leader performance, but also influences ‘follower’ behaviour in terms of employee/follower organisational commitment, citizenship behaviour, task performance, and creativity. Prof. Peng emphasises that alignment between words and actions can signal to subordinates that the leader is credible. This establishes trust between leaders and subordinates since this match between words and deeds provide certainty, predictability and reliability. As a result, workers experience an open, safe, trustworthy, and supporting working environment where they are more likely to speak up. Moreover, Prof. Peng affirms that when leaders consistently walk their talk, they send clear signals about which behaviours are encouraged and unencouraged. When there is less role-related ambiguity and uncertainty, employees will be more likely to speak up because they can figure out their leaders’ actions and feel safe to adopt appropriate ways to voice their concerns. Uncertainty, on the other hand, brought on by a leader’s failure to follow through on her espoused values will send mixed and ambiguous signals. Employees, lost in uncertainty, will invest significant time and energy to navigate these murky waters and in the absence of clarity of managerial expectation, will feel unsafe to voice their opinion/suggestions. As such, to instil a safe environment for employees to speak up, Prof. Peng stresses the importance of leader behavioural integrity.

Checking the climate for independence

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Climate control

Another ingredient that amplifies an employee’s willingness to speak up is a phenomenon Prof. Peng refers to as team independence climate. Employee voice is encouraged in a climate where the norm within a team is to follow their own personal ethical beliefs. A shared ethical perception of what is right or wrong helps create a team climate conducive to employee voice. An independence climate encourages individuals to adhere to their personal independent moral judgments, and subsequently can increase employees’ courage to speak up. Moreover, team independence climate may encourage employees to hold higher ethical standards and emphasise the interests of their organisations ahead of their personal interests. Because speaking up is generally regarded as helpful and beneficial, employees in an independence climate may experience an obligation to speak up for the organisational interests. But what creates such a climate? Behavioural integrity, Prof. Peng claims. He explains that an organisation’s moral climate reflects the moral development of the organisation’s leader. Furthermore, he argues that leaders with high behavioural integrity can help to shape team independence climate, not only by demonstrating adherence to their own principles but also by creating a clear, predictable, and trustworthy environment in which employees dare to insist on their personal morality.

Ethics: a deal breaker

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Good brick

Although leader behavioural integrity is one of the key factors influencing team independence climate, Prof. Peng’s research finds that corporate ethical values also play an important role in the formation of such a climate. Corporate ethical values pervasively influence the organisation at all levels and are the underpinnings of all other specific organisational values because they help to establish and maintain basic behavioural standards about what things are right to do and what things are worth doing. When ethical values are highly emphasised in an organisation, employees receive clear signals about what is important in the organisation, and subsequently experience a consistent perception about what is expected of them and what they can expect in turn. This helps develop trust between employees and leaders, and a climate conducive to employee voice.

Turning the volume up: a practical guide

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Pumping up the volume

To sum up, Prof. Peng’s research highlights the importance for managers to realise the need to walk their talks and keep promises as a means to foster employee voice. For high-tech organizations that urgently need to foster employee voice and encourage team creativity, Prof. Peng suggests that leaders with high degrees of behavioural integrity be recruited. To inculcate greater leader accountability, setting up incentive systems that encourage leaders to be match their words to their actions are recommended. When it comes to fostering an independence environment conducive to employee voice, Prof. Peng recommends organisations add principled values such as moral integrity into their employee selection criteria for example. Organisations may also use employee training sessions to help instil beliefs that are conducive to a principled independence climate. To help build an independence climate, managers can behave as role models who adhere to principled ethical values. In addition, they can provide their employees with the latitude to make decisions in the interest of justice, morality and respect for human rights, regard less of organisational context. Ethical values, another ingredient necessary for employee voice, require top managers to set a personal example. If managers wish to develop a strong sense of moral integrity, they should simply adhere to designated ethical values in addition to establishing reasonable systems of incentives and punishments to help encourage and maintain positive attitudes and behaviours demonstrative of the team’s ethical values.

Behavioural integrity is the key to unlocking employee’s voice. And unlocked it must be. Susan J. Fowler’s example demonstrates two things: First, how the lack of an independence work environment and behavioural integrity from leaders, an inconsistency in ethical values, and ambiguous organisational expectations from employees can supress employee voice and thus be detrimental to an organisation. Second, it highlights the importance of employee voice as well as its relationship with leader behavioural integrity. Where there is integrity, voice will prosper. Luckily for Uber’s employees, what was originally intended as a blog post that looked back on Ms. Fowler’s time at Uber after she had quit the organisation ended up ousting Uber’s then CEO and revealed the many cracks in the tech industry’s foundation. But it begs the question if management behavioural integrity might have done the job quicker.

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