What Australia’s cricket ball tampering episode can tell you about getting your workers to speak up about problems in your business.
Why the outrage?
It can be argued that the current “crisis” situation in cricket may not have arisen if the game’s stakeholders (players, umpires, other officials) had been courageous enough to voice their concerns earlier. But that raises the question of WHY no-one was either willing to do so, or why they weren’t taken seriously if they did.
The lessons for businesses
A high volume of employee complaints may reflect poorly on you, but the eventual outcome may be far worse if workers know something is wrong but refuse to speak up. The challenge for managers and business owners is to encourage employees to speak up, but in a constructive way and without fear of any retribution.
With several recent major corporate scandals (eg lending by the major banks, car airbags), some managers and employees were well aware of wrongdoing for years before it became public knowledge, with the resulting major reputational damage. The lack of willingness of employees, managers and work teams to hold “difficult” conversations is a very influential factor here.
Why won’t employees speak up?
The main reasons for “keeping quiet” are:
- fear of getting into trouble, or causing it
- possible retribution or rejection by others (eg “not a team player”), or bullying
- pressure from either peers or managers to say and do nothing
- both employees and managers may be scared to have “hard” conversations and therefore won’t rock the boat – with managers, this is often due to inexperience, insecurity and/or lack of training or coaching
- fear that speaking up will be interpreted as an indicator of a personality clash or workplace politics, instead of a genuine voice of concern.
What can you do?
Encouraging employees to speak up constructively cannot be achieved quickly. It requires building up a culture of mutual trust and respect. Employees will only respond positively once they believe that this type of culture exists.
It’s natural for workers to observe how managers respond to critical feedback or complaints: if they respond aggressively, ignore feedback or discourage it (eg label people as whingers), then workers will not bother to say anything. They will either bottle up their frustrations and find a way to cope in silence, or leave the organisation.
Critical feedback generally indicates that workers actually care about the situation. Continual silence or apathetic compliance may mean that they don’t care and/or have given up. If an employee known for speaking up goes quiet, this is a warning sign – it probably means that he/she has stopped caring and maybe is planning to resign. Alternatively, it may indicate that some form of bullying or harassment is occurring behind the scenes.
How can you build trust and seek constructive feedback?
- First, regularly seek feedback from employees in “low-risk” situations. At the end of team meetings, ask “how do you think that went” and invite comments.
- Listen to feedback and take it on board, even if inclined to disagree with it. Don’t immediately launch into a counterargument. Acknowledge that the feedback shows that the employee cares about your business.
- Say what you intend to do about the feedback. For example, take action yourself, investigate further, refer it to someone else who can act, suggest another course of action/solution, ask for further evidence, etc. Also consider asking the employee what he/she thinks the solution is.
- Whatever you promised, actually do it, otherwise you are back where you started.
Use the above to show employees how a problem should be raised and handled in future. This should include providing scope for teams to identify and resolve their own problems.
Finally, managers and business owners need to act as role models. Employees will copy what you do, because they perceive that it is what they must do to succeed. You need to be transparent, honest, willing to admit mistakes and willing to listen to and acknowledge different opinions to your own. Something that Australian cricket ex-captain Steve Smith has now done.