I read two fascinating articles recently: MIT Sloan Review’s What managers can gain from anonymous chats and Blind Loyalty in TechCrunch. I found the articles thought provoking and exciting. They remind us that we’re entering the age of the employee. Not because the economy is growing, or unemployment is low, but because employees can have a voice. A voice that is much louder, stronger and more influential because of social media. A voice that can gain momentum digitally and spread quickly. A voice that can change society, or at least a company culture.
As leaders, do we want to hear that voice or are we afraid we can’t control it? What type of skills will it take to understand voice and, more importantly, act on it?
Questions to consider when it comes to voice
There’s a lot of talk about open, candid and transparent cultures. We want feedback. We participate in engagement surveys. We conduct 360 reviews. But as leaders, do we really want to know what is going on or just “feel like we should ask”? Do we take action on the feedback received? Are we checking a box or truly building a culture of transparency?
>As employees, do we really trust that if we speak the truth it will be heard, and more importantly be considered, and maybe even drive positive change? Or do we take a negative approach and worry about the implications and potential consequences of speaking up?
Are we responsible with voice or careless? Do we say things to be hurtful or seek vengeance? Or do we stop and think about how things are affecting our ability to work and participate productively in a community? Said another way, are we truly focused on how to use voice to make things better?
Open the dialogue, don’t control it
Voice is a two-way street. Both the person asking and the one responding need to be honest and professional in their intentions and actions.
As a leader, I believe in transparency and debate. I believe employees should have a voice and leaders should promote dialogue. But today most dialogue is guarded. Too often, people do not trust that the person or group asking for feedback really wants to hear it. They fear that their honesty will be translated as defensiveness, seen as unprofessional and lead to career isolation or worse — firing. Trying to control dialogue is a mistake. It limits progress and breeds a culture of cynicism.
In the past, leaders could manage dialogue. It was controlled by them. The leader held the upper hand in the conversation, the power and the perceived fear of repercussion. Today, that is slowly changing.
Blindly fueling employee voice in the workplace
As consumers, we’ve found our voice. We’re not waiting for a survey; we’re providing instantaneous feedback through social media platforms. We tweet about it at the airport, the car dealership, the movie, etc. As consumers, we’re taking control of the dialogue. We start the conversation and we own it the whole way through. Most businesses understand that and are now promoting that conversation with their customers proactively.
And now those social media platforms are reaching Corporate America. They’re being built for employees and they’re facilitating conversations. The articles I mentioned previously pointed to a tool called Blind. Blind is gaining traction as an app that allows employees to form communities and use their voice in a safe and anonymous environment. While companies are initially fearful of such a tool, the reality is it could be the first genuine mechanism to get truly candid and constructive feedback to measure the pulse of your employees. Imagine the power of that and the positive change it could drive if we embrace it as leaders.
Employee voice will only get louder and stronger, based on these innovations. The reality is there is potential for an upside and a downside. It all depends on how you choose to look at it. But one thing is certain, for voice to work both parties need to be responsible, professional and accountable.
Ready or not, the age of employee voice is here
Sure, it’s risky. The territory is unknown. But it’s real, it’s coming and I applaud it. It has the potential to hold everyone to a higher standard, including leaders. And over time, it will make cultures stronger.
As leaders, we need to be ready and prepared. We need to understand how to engage in conversations, how to communicate and handle conflict. We need to know how to control emotion and act professionally. We need to learn how to talk to each other with respect and mutual understanding. We are all human and it’s natural for the truth to sting a little, but, personally, I feel less angry then when I hear the truth directly, than if I overhear it at the proverbial water cooler. Let’s choose to listen and act. Who knows, we may just have a way to improve transparency and over time, not make it blind.