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Employee voice: the role of line managers

Published 27th September 2017 by Investors in People
Employee voice: picture of good line manager

We’ve previously discussed why the line manager is so important to employee engagement, but the line manager’s importance doesn’t stop there: when it comes to enabling employee voice, the line manager is equally crucial.

Of everyone in the organisation, the line manager has the strongest influence on the employee’s psychological and physical environment. And it’s this psychological and physical environment that makes employees feel either unsafe or safe to speak out at work.

Line managers must take steps to mould this environment, but should additionally shape the employee’s experience of the rest of the organisation because this also influences the degree to which employees feel able to exercise their voice.

How can line managers do this? We give you five ideas below.

Develop an authentic, dialogic leadership style

We’ve previously discussed the positive relationship between more employee-centered forms of leadership (such as ethical leadership) and employee voice.

A 2010 study of nurses in Ontario found that authentic leadership was associated with both employee engagement and trust in the manager, both of which predicted the degree to which staff were likely to engage in ‘voice behaviours,’ such as speaking out.

Managers should build trust by constantly welcoming feedback and reporting back on what action will be taken.

Employee voice is naturally inhibited by hierarchy; the more that line managers can develop employee-centered leadership styles and share information openly with employees, the more the relationship will become dialogic, fuelling trust and engagement, which in turn encourage honest feedback.

Set clear ground rules for employee voice mechanisms

As we’ve noted before in our advice on communication, it’s mismatched expectations that create distance and distrust between manager and employee.

Ryan and Oestreich (1998) found that employees were most scared about speaking out when their supervisors were “ambiguous” i.e inconsistent and unresponsive. Being clear on how feedback will be handled, how it will be passed up the food chain, how the employee’s reputation will be protected - and more - is critical.

It’s critical not just because these ground rules create a psychologically safe environment for employee voice, but because when employees speak out and their expectations on what will happen are not met, they will be unlikely to speak out again.

Prioritise informal discussions and trust-building behaviours

Managers must “proactively and consciously create opportunities for direct, informal interaction with employees,” according to Detert and Treviño (2010).

In these interactions, the authors say, managers should build trust by constantly welcoming feedback and reporting back on what action will be taken. Feedback that challenges their own beliefs and ideas should especially be encouraged.

This should, over time, help to turn what are naturally quite guarded, one-sided interactions into “two-way conversations where important information is exchanged.”

Rees et al (2013) [PDF] found that employees who perceive themselves as speaking out with opinions and suggestions are more likely to be engaged with their work, and that trust in the employee-line management relationship heavily influences employee perceptions of how often they speak out.

Connect employees with senior leaders

Farndale et al (2011) highlighted trust in senior management as a factor influencing whether employee voice leads to higher organisational commitment. Line managers have two roles to play here: the first is making sure information is cascaded down in a way that makes sense to employees. Employees can lose faith in leaders’ competence and integrity if they don’t understand why decisions have been made.

The second is passing information and feedback upwards in a form most understandable and relevant to senior leaders e.g. translating employee feedback into language that shows the clear financial impact on the business if the feedback is not addressed.

Employees can lose faith in leaders’ competence and integrity if they don’t understand why decisions have been made.

By mediating between employees and senior managers, line managers play a very important role in establishing an organisation-wise dialogic culture and forging trust between two groups that infrequently interact. Both of these are important for embedding employee voice.

Interpret and action formal voice mechanisms

We’ve pointed out that formal employee voice mechanisms are important but not sufficient, but these are often the place organisations start, so it’s important to get them right. One of the most common mistakes is rolling out an employee voice programme, often a pulse survey, and then failing to put in place rigid processes for collating, responding to and actioning feedback.

While there’s likely to be a central team tasked with managing this, line managers have a clear role to play, including gathering further feedback from the team, finding out exactly what outcomes they are looking for, translating the thinking of HR and senior leaders into information understandable to employees, and mediating to find solutions that benefit employees and the organisation.

Even at the early stage of interpreting survey results, line managers bring a clear strength; they are more likely to understand the context of their staff’s feedback and can help ‘put the meat on the bones’ before it gets collated centrally and passed upwards.