Is Fear the Only Reason Employees Don’t Speak Up?
Last week, as I had mentioned, was our first ever KaiNexus User Conference. We had a great time with our customers and it was amazing to see them share their progress and lessons with each other.
I gave a keynote talk on “Getting Back to Basics with Lean.”
We also had a professor, Ethan Burris, come give a really thought provoking talk that's backed up by a lot of research. Prof. Burris has been a friend of KaiNexus and we're big fans of his work on “employee voice” — and the reasons why (or why not) employees speak up (or don't). Burris is an associate professor of management at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.
If you ask, “Why don't employees speak up?” regarding things like problems, process improvement opportunities, ideas, and safety concerns, the first answer in my mind is usually FEAR. They are afraid to speak up because they afraid of punishment, blame, or repercussions.
That's one reason why I thought GM wasn't right to lecture employees to “Speak Up For Safety” when management either didn't listen or punished people.
Beyond fear is the second reason employees don't speak up when they otherwise might want to… it relates to the “management didn't listen” part of the last sentence.
This HBR, co-authored by Burris, covers it well:
They often do! When trying to spur Kaizen and continuous improvement, employees are often very skeptical about why it's going to be different this time. Why is management finally going to listen? When will we actually get help implementing solutions?
Is it going to be worth my time?? The effort? Am I wasting my breath?
From the HBR piece:
In the 2009 Cornell National Social Survey, for example, more respondents reported withholding information about problems or ideas for improvement due to a sense of futility (26%) than a fear of personal consequences (20%). In another study, we found that futility was 1.8 times more common than fear as a reason for withholding ideas from direct supervisors in a large multinational corporation.
It's interesting to me that futility is a bigger barrier than fear. Does that surprise you?
Dr. Deming said we need to “drive out fear” from organizations. Can we also drive out that feeling of futility? I think we can… I know we can (I have seen it happen) with the adoption of a robust Kaizen methodology.
Also check out another HBR piece, again co-authored by Burris:
What are you or your organization doing to help employees speak up? Are you removing fear or reducing the feeling of futility?