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Employee voice: why is it important to sustainable success?

Published 20th September 2017 by Investors in People
Employee voice at work

In the modern business environment, organisations become successful when they harness human potential. Without strong mechanisms for employee voice, it’s impossible to do this effectively.

There are two types of employee voice, both of which are important for sustainable success. The first occurs when, facing dissatisfaction in the workplace, employees voice their concerns openly and honestly rather than leaving the organisation.

The second is about decision-making and is sometimes known as participative management: this is the extent to which employees have input into the decision-making process.

Why are these two types of employee voice so critical to sustainable success?

Employee voice protects against the wide-ranging impact of negative emotions

Perlow and Williams (2003) suggest that when employees feel unable to speak out, negative emotions like resentment and anger bubble up, which can “shut down creativity” and chip away at motivation, productivity and performance. This may be driven by feelings of inauthenticity, which is psychologically damaging.

If this happens on a department or organisation-wide scale, the overall drop in performance can be significant and lead to further problems such as increased attrition. Strong mechanisms for employee voice therefore protect against a host of challenges that stem from the psychological demands of being forced to remain silent.

Employee voice improves organisational agility

Collins (2001) says that a climate where employees feel able to speak the truth is essential if organisations are to adapt quickly to changing market conditions.

Managers often lose touch with the way front-line services are actually delivered to customers. Unless employees can be candid about the reality of how the organisation operates on a day-to-day basis, it can be very hard to improve it, as sustainable change starts with transparency and honesty.

If employees are able to speak up about what’s important to them and what’s achievable, HR can design incentive schemes that better orient employees towards meeting organisational goals.

As the world evolves more rapidly, organisations that cannot quickly build a picture of how they need to change - and then take action - will fall behind.

Employee voice helps prevent knowledge and skill loss

A study by Daniel G. Spencer from the University of Kansas found that a high number of mechanisms for employee voice correlated strongly with a high degree of retention.

When employees feel able to speak out and have the tools to do so, grievances are nipped in the bud before they damage wellbeing, job satisfaction and the psychological contract (which can encourage employees to quit).

For organisations, a high level of retention is key in a world where tacit knowledge forms a core part of competitive advantage. Replacing knowledge and skills is expensive, making engagement and nurturing of existing staff so important.

Employee voice improves employer branding and customer acquisition

A lack of employee voice can frustrate employees, meaning they take their grievances elsewhere, often voicing them on public channels like Glassdoor and social media. This can damage an organisation’s ability to recruit talent, as candidates will invariably browse these sites before submitting applications or accepting invitations to interview.

Organisations that have strong mechanisms for employee voice allow employees to redress grievances internally and privately, keeping negative commentary off public forums. This improves the organisation’s externally-facing employer brand and also gives them a chance to build a stronger relationship with the employee by responding to their feedback.

There’s also evidence that consumers look at Glassdoor and social media before deciding which companies to buy from, so employee voice can help with your customer-facing reputation as well as your employer brand.

Employee voice leads to higher collective learning

Detert & Burris (2007) suggest employee voice can increase collective learning in teams and organisations. When employees feel safe to voice concerns and contribute honestly to decision-making processes, groups can better leverage the natural diversity in the group and optimise decision-making.

Higher levels of collective learning also help improve operational readiness to tackle challenges, which is key for keeping organisations agile and adaptable to changing market conditions.

Employee voice improves job design

Improving job design can lead to higher engagement, satisfaction and wellbeing, which all impact productivity and performance.

In organisations with opportunities for employee voice, employees are more able to be honest about the parts of the job that are working and those that need honing to better suit the market and their skills and abilities.

Better-designed jobs impact not only the employee but also colleagues and other departments the employee has to work with.

Employee voice drives authentic organisational purpose and values

Purpose-driven organisations tend to have high degrees of employee engagement and satisfaction. But these benefits only emerge when the purpose and values have been truly co-created with employees, which requires a high degree of employee voice.

Without employee voice, values and purpose end up being decided unilaterally and will only ever be grudgingly accepted by employees. The organisation will not benefit from the higher engagement and satisfaction associated with purpose-driven organisations and could damage relationships with employees if staff feel the purpose is inauthentic.

A lack of employee voice can frustrate employees, meaning they take their grievances elsewhere, often voicing them on public channels like Glassdoor and social media.

Employee voice optimises increasingly-critical HR processes

Strong mechanisms for employee voice combined with a trusting employee-line manager relationship can give HR invaluable information on the reality of what people feel about their jobs, what skills and behaviours they need to work on to progress and what is needed to boost their careers and improve their value to the organisation.

This can positively influence the direction of key HR processes like succession planning, leadership development programmes, job design and workplace recognition, leading to improved employee satisfaction and performance.

On the reward side, if employees are able to speak up about what’s important to them and what’s achievable, HR can design incentive schemes that better orient employees towards meeting organisational goals.

Employee voice helps organisations make better decisions

Ultimately, organisations are operating in an increasingly complex, disruptive world, and the idea that a small team of people in a boardroom have all the knowledge, experience and insight to respond accordingly is losing favour.

Strong employee voice and participative management allows organisations to tap into a vast source of knowledge and insight spread across the organisation. This means senior leaders can make decisions with more complete information, and a more diverse knowledge-base, leading to better outcomes.