In the first of a series, 44 Account Director Nick Robbins looks at how thinking like a researcher can benefit the IC professional. This series aims to provide an alternative way of viewing the everyday to help you think differently about a problem or opportunity that comes your way. This time, he’s looking at critical thinking…

My colleague Sam’s blog about the power of listening got me thinking about the relationship between employee voice and action. Traditionally, the concept of ‘voice’ has traditionally been conceived through the collective bargaining power of unions (see Freeman and Medoff’s What do Unions Do?, 1985). However, we as IC professionals are more likely to view it as fulfilling one of two functions (liberally borrowing from Dundon et al.’s 2004 framework here): either registering individual dissatisfaction (think raising grievances or critical feedback to line managers), or contributing to collective decision making (think proactively suggesting improvements or participating in taskforces or working groups).

Paraphrasing the work of more scholars, voice is how employees can register their content or discontent through sanctioned or unsanctioned media or methods (Miles and Mangold, 2014). That can take the form of low scores on attitude surveys, through to ideas for process improvements in digital suggestion boxes.

What unites all definitions and methods of voice is that it is considered a discretionary effort – something above and beyond what is included in someone’s job description (Van Dyne and LePine, 1998).

The other thing that unites is that giving colleagues a voice is still rare.

That’s born out of low response rates to non-compulsory surveys, under-utilised comment boxes on intranets and long silences when a line manager asks: ‘Any comments or feedback’ at the end of a Teams call.

So, what’s that got to do with thinking like an IC researcher?

It’s all about keeping a critical eye on what information and data you’re receiving. Knowing the strengths and limitations of what you’re using to base decisions on gets you a step ahead of those who passively accept what’s presented to them.

When reading up on employee voice, I came across a great piece of research by Tourish and Robson (2006) that spun my perception of the topic.

They posited that managers, intentionally or not, act in a way that discourages critical upward communication. The crux was that employees speaking in a supportive voice to managers is low risk, high reward. This means speaking positively is reinforced, encouraged and rewarded.

This creates problems. What is seen as voice is actually a rational choice by employees to live a good life, without risking their job or promotion prospects. Dissent is therefore a high risk, low reward activity, which means dissent tends to be mild or silent.

By creating an environment without true critical feedback, the situation arises where managers believe their views are not only widely held, but also correct. In their research, Tourish and Robson found that managers in this situation believed, however, that they were championing constructive criticism, while not receiving any.

The lesson here as a researcher? Treat positive employee voice with the same rigour as you treat critical upwards communication. Ask why an organisation has the feedback it has.

And if you are conducting your own research, think how you can do it in a way that might encourage employees to share their true feedback. That could be by ensuring the anonymity of data or interviewing people away from their office or colleagues.

It might also mean looking at what a lack of results tells us.

So, what would low participation rate in surveys or focus groups tell us? That people just aren’t interested or that the channels aren’t working… Perhaps. But the researcher might look more critically at other options too.

In her book, Open Leadership (2010), Charlene Li explained that the majority of employees are watchers who wait to see if organisations will actually respond. Her message: Don’t confuse passivity with lack of interest.

The inverse of employee voice is employee silence. This is not an act of disinterest, but the intentional withholding work related ideas, information and opinions, according to researchers Van Dyne, Ang and Botero (2003).

Rather than dismissing a lack of results, it can be telling to ask why there is limited employee voice. What is the environment in which you are asking people to voice something that can be low reward, high risk? What example are managers setting when they receive critical feedback, for instance? Or what does the organisation do when employees exercise their voice? Is it welcomed and shown to be a positive, or kept hidden in the C-suite in silence, until the next time the request goes out for comment and feedback?

Demonstrating that voice is heard, feedback taken seriously and appreciated, and actions taken is the clearest way to embed voice within an organisation’s culture. Something that forms the backbone of lots of the work we do.

If you’d like to discuss anything in this blog post, or want a critical eye to look over an IC problem you’re wrestling with, drop us a line.