Freedom of speech is well understood to be a core part of any democratic society. But at work, it can often be a different story. Arguments arise between the need to listen versus our desire to be efficient. Or when managing teams we can feel as though employees speaking up at work is a threat to our role and authority. A wide and growing body of organisational research, however, shows this to be a false dichotomy. In this tutorial we’ll explore how free opinions and upward dissent in the workplace actually benefits productivity and strengthens the legitimacy of management roles.
Why speaking up at work matters
The immediate practical benefits of employees speaking up at work are easy to recognise: proposed solutions to the problems that workers experience day-to-day, ideas for improving efficiency or reducing waste, and the questioning of unethical behaviour before it causes larger problems.
There are also less obvious, but equally important benefits, that are experienced over time. Our innate desire to express ourselves means that we react negatively when we feel repressed.
If someone tells you to ‘shut up’ mid-sentence you’ll likely react with anger, sadness or even embarrassment. However, in an environment where employees consistently feel as though they can’t quite say what they want – whether through fear of reprisals or simply a lack of opportunity – their reaction will be different.
Instead of an immediate rush of emotion, a state of disengagement sets in where employees disinvested themselves from activities at work and simply go through the motions. They’re then less likely to contribute the practical benefits mentioned above, but also become less motivated and apply themselves less in general, with productivity declining as a result.
Structuring dissent and discussions
Our goal then, as managers and organisations as a whole, should be to create an environment that fosters psychological safety. This is a state when team members think less about the potential negative consequences of sharing different or opposing viewpoints, when people will speak up without the fear of being harshly judged.
We should look to ensure there’s room for feedback and dissenting views in team discussions, and hold frequent one-on-one chats with employees. A combination of these two approaches is essential: employees may feel an issue is too contentious to raise in a group setting at first but may be happy to discuss it in private. Similarly they may not know how to broach the subject directly with you, but may feel more confident if their view is shared by their peers.
In all cases you should welcome and consider opposing views. They’ll either be a source of innovation, or a useful indicator that existing practices or strategies need to be communicated better.
As hard as it may be to hear dissenting views at times, we can remind ourselves of an analogy to the world of politics. We don’t view dictators who limit dissent as legitimate leaders. Those we hold in high regard listen and take on board different ideas as part of a democratic system. Similarly, motivated employees see their managers not as enforcers but as people who support them and enable them to express themselves as individuals and in teams. Speaking up at work is a sign that people feel safe around you, so make sure to listen and see what you can learn.