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Culture can be defined by what employees don’t say

(OPINION) What your employees say defines your business. What your employees don’t say defines your culture.

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Whether the boss realizes or not, employees – the folks who often manufacture, handle, and sell the products themselves – can see sides of the business that management could easily overlook, including potential risks and improvements. So how do you make sure your employees are speaking up? A new study by Harvard researcher Hemant KakkarSubra Tangirala reveals that when it comes to speaking up, your company culture is probably either encouraging or discouraging it.

Tangirala wanted to compare two theories as to why employees choose to stay quiet when they could share their worries or ideas with company management. The “personality perspective” presumes that shy, reticent employees simply don’t have the gumption to speak up; therefore, the way to get more perspective from your employees is to make a point to hire extroverted people.

Meanwhile, the “situational perspective” posits that the company culture may either be encouraging and even expecting employees to speak up or discouraging it by creating an environment wherein employees “fear suffering significant social costs by challenging their bosses.”

In order to test these two theories against one another, Tangirala surveyed nearly 300 employees and 35 supervisors at a Malaysian manufacturing plant. First, the survey measured each employee’s “approach orientation,” that is whether or not, all things being equal, they had a personality more inclined to speaking up or staying mum. Next, employees were asked whether they thought their input was expected, rewarded, or punished. Lastly, supervisors were asked to rank the employees as to how often they spoke up on the shop floor.

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The survey showed that both personality and the work environment significantly influenced whether or not an employee would speak up – however, it also showed that environmental factors could “override” employees’ natural inclinations. In other words, if employees felt that they were expected or would be rewarded for speaking up, they would do so, even if they aren’t naturally garrulous. On the other hand, even the most outspoken employees would bite their tongues if they thought they would be punished for giving their opinion.

The study also identified two major areas wherein employees could be either encouraged or discouraged from sharing their perspective. First, employees can be encouraged to suggest improvements or innovations that will increase workplace safety and efficiency. Secondly, employees should be expected to speak up when they witness dangers or behaviors that could “compromise safety or operations.”

Although the study was limited, it seems to point towards the importance of creating a workplace culture wherein your employees are rewarded for speaking up. Doing so could potentially provide you with invaluable insights into how to improve your business – insights that can only come from the shop floor.

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Ellen Vessels, a Staff Writer at The American Genius, is respected for their wide range of work, with a focus on generational marketing and business trends. Ellen is also a performance artist when not writing, and has a passion for sustainability, social justice, and the arts.

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