<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=749646578535459&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">

KaiNexus Blog

Everything Continuous Improvement


The Cause and Cost of Silence in a Culture of Continuous Improvement

Posted by Matt Banna

Find me on:

Aug 18, 2016 7:00:00 AM

As the 2016 KaiNexus User Conference nears and we start planning who to invite to present, I went back through our video archives and found the recording of one of last year’s keynote speakers, Ethan Burris, UT Professor and Researcher, in his presentation on The Cause and Cost of Silence. I feel like it’s being wasted, languishing in the archives, so I’m pulling it out to share with all of you.

In the presentation, Ethan says that there are three types of employee voice:

  1. Organizational wrongdoing
  2. Employee treatment
  3. Organizational improvement

We’ll be focusing on organizational improvement here. Watch this video for the full talk!


Cultivating Ideas

Getting people to speak up with ideas for improvement isn’t easy because speaking up in this way is voluntary and it takes a lot of confidence to stand up and identify a problem or a better way to do things. Another reason it’s tough to get these ideas is that people often get so wrapped up in doing their daily work, they neglect to think about how to improve it. And of course, sometimes it is hard for managers to objectively listen to feedback on what they can do differently.

In a study Ethan conducted to measure employee voice, he had participants write down ideas for improvement. He then followed up and found that only 40% of the employees went on to tell their managers about their ideas. That might not be a big deal, right? Maybe the people with the best ideas told their managers, and the so-so ideas got forgotten?

Not true.

In the exercise, Ethan had the managers rank all of the ideas in order of merit, and found that only 40% of the 100 best ideas got reported. That means that the organizations were missing out on 60% of the best ideas! He found that even among the most vocal employees, 42% will still keep some ideas from their manager.

So why do employees will withhold their ideas?

They do so for a couple of reasons.

  1. Some have a fear of repercussions for speaking up. Examples include employees getting transferred or fired after coming forward with ideas.
  2. Others have a sense of futility: even if they speak up, they believe that nothing will change.

When people feel dissatisfied in a situation - such as with their jobs or a component of their daily work - they will either speak up or they will disengage entirely. When engagement is met with positive outcomes, it leads to more engagement and reduced turnover. When people speak up and then get no results or poor results, however, they become more disengaged and turnover increases.

What does this mean?

Employees want to see change.

Beneficial Employee Voice

Ethan BurrisSo what is the most beneficial employee voice? Employee voice is the most beneficial when it results in an action that addresses the issue. That means that it’s most effective when it is directed towards people who can take action, such as managers or leaders, compared to just complaining to peers. That means that when you hear a problem, action must be taken.

The managers that hear these ideas often fall into two categories: promotion-focused or prevention-focused. Promotion-focused managers believe that the worst outcome of non-action is an opportunity not taken while prevention focused managers believe the worst possible outcome of an action is upsetting the status quo or the balance in the organization.

This means that promotion-focused managers are partial to ideas that are pitched as an opportunity that should be taken advantage of, while prevention-focused managers prefer ideas that are pitched as a threat (e.g. “something bad will happen if we don’t do this”). This means that managers may be biased to certain ideas based on the way that they are phrased rather than the actual merit of the idea. Understanding this is important when coaching managers to listen to their employees.

Misguided Tactics

Occasionally, organizations try to implement systems that will help increase voice and cultivate ideas. Often, though, the tactics they use to encourage speaking up actually incentivize people to withhold beneficial voice. For example:

  1. Anonymous Reporting System

    An anonymous reporting system might seem like a safe way that to tell employees that they can speak without being punished. The reasoning why it is not a good idea is right there -  employees know that it is ordinarily not safe to give ideas. Why would they need protection if there are no repercussions?

  2. Asking for Input They Don’t Plan to Implement

    Another issue is when organizations ask for input that they don’t necessarily want to hear. They will go into it asking for ideas while knowing that they will not implement those ideas, which creates a sense of futility when nothing gets done. When asking for ideas, leaders have to actually intend to have the issues fixed.

How To Create a Culture of Voice

  1. Be Present

    Get out of your office. Take a Gemba Walk and let employees give you their ideas on their own turf where they may feel more comfortable. Softening the power cues from leaders such as sitting at a round table instead of the leader at the head of the table can also make a difference.

  2. Give Productive, Frequent Feedback

    When feedback is sparse, it is often the source of punishment or correction for staff. Daily huddles and check-ins make it more of a natural and friendly experience in the workplace.

  3. Practice What You Preach

    Be the example. Once the ideas start coming in, if a manager can’t implement it on their own, make sure they are willing to go up the chain of command and get the resources they need.

  4. Follow Up. Every Time.

    “Close the loop” on ideas for improvement. Following up with employees to see where their ideas are, why it’s being implemented or not, and how to better pitch it in the future can be the key to making sure that they continue to submit ideas.

Learning how to grow, cultivate and spread employee ideas is only one part of building a culture of continuous improvement. Every organization has their own unique thoughts and different strategies - and a bunch of our most successful customers will be sharing theirs at the 2016 KaiNexus User Conference. Sign up here to make sure you don’t miss a thing.

Download this free eBook to learn more about engaging people in a culture of improvement.


The Savvy's Leader's Guide to Employee Engagement


Recent Posts