Articles 2 min read

Employee silence, an innovation killer by Karen Walker

Employee silence occurs when employees make conscious decisions to not provide information, opinions and feedback, raise issues or make suggestions. It can occur for a number of reasons, such as a belief that providing an idea or feedback is futile as it will be ignored, or a fear that expressing a view differing from that of colleagues or management risks professional relationships, job opportunities and security.

Whatever the reasons if employee silence is pervasive so too is a level of disengagement that inhibits business risk identification and resolution, and limits collaboration and diversity of ideas. Negatively impacting morale and how strongly employees identify with their organisation and its customers. All of which are major barriers to continual improvement and innovation.

So what can organisations do to remove barriers to benefit from their employees’ diverse perspectives, knowledge and ideas, and position meaningful critical and creative thinking at its core?

A fable about customer and employee experience

This is a story with a happy ending, about a fictional organisation reaping the rewards of making customer experience at the heart of its strategies, products and services. Armed with the knowledge that the economic benefits of innovation were undeniable, it made sense to also invest in making its’ employee experience central to working for their organisation. On the basis those experiences human beings have positive memories of, whether in the role of a customer or employee, they will most likely seek to repeat. The organisation keen to ensure their employees being innovative in thinking and actions became the norm, not the exception.

Stacked with existing capability and knowledge in understanding and measuring customer experience, and using these insights to inform their design of products, customer interactions and service delivery, their approach was simple. To apply the same customer experience principles and approaches to design the experiences of their employees.

The organisation moved away from their traditional engagement surveys and approaches that measured and captured employee feedback against a defined set of performance metrics once or twice a year. Instead, utilising a suite of technology, apps, tools, channels, forums and processes to capture employee feedback and insights. Asking employees about what really mattered to them and gaining deep insights into why. Recognising that as needs and experience of their employees change over time so would their level of engagement with the organisation, they captured employee insights and feedback continuously, as well as at important interactions and moments in time.

The organisation was surprised to discover that for many employees, their experience of voicing an opinion, coming up with left-field ideas and raising risks and issues, wasn’t a positive one. That what really mattered and was infrequently experienced, was being intellectually engaged in ways that made their work and contributions feel meaningful and valued.

So how did this organisation achieve a happy ending to their story?

Just as they dramatically changed their thinking around what customer centricity meant in terms of their capability and actions, they realised being employee-centric was also mind-shift change. Moving from the management of ‘human resources’ or ‘people and culture’, to a core capability in creating employee experiences that are mutually beneficial to employees and the business. For the organisation in this story, it was about cultivating collaboration, openness and psychological safety for employees to express views about their experiences, and co-design improvements. Which also fostered meaningful critical and creative thinking and collaboration on solving customer problems and designing innovative customer services and products.

Often identified as a key strategy for organisations, innovation in itself isn’t a strategy. Coming up with innovative tactics and design of solutions, products and services to achieve an organisation’s strategic aspirations is where innovation plays a part.

Thank you to Ram Vemuri, Professor of Business Management of Charles Darwin University for graciously sharing his knowledge and insights into the nature of silence that helped shape this article. Ram co-authored the recently published The Ethics of Silence: An Interdisciplinary Case Analysis Approach an interdisciplinary exploration of the modalities, meanings, and practices of silence in contemporary social discourse. How is silence treated in different cultures? In a globalized world, how is silence managed between and across cultures?

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