Why employees don’t speak up until it’s too late

Company Culture
Team Intellect
Sep 6, 2022

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“If you don’t like it, say something.” ― Joyce Rachelle (Writer)

Many corporate employees have much to say about their experiences at work in our coaching sessions. When recounting negative ones, they would articulate problems in great detail, and even solutions they had come up with. what if these conversations were had not only between individuals and coaches but also between employees and their managers?

When employees don’t speak up, an organisation has much to lose. An employee’s voice plays a significant role in an organisation. Their opinions, concerns, and ideas could well improve innovation and performance. Their silence, on the other hand, may be an indicator of organisational pitfalls. Something as simple as acknowledging employee feedback can be a first step in reducing damage and preventing losses. 

As a psychologist and coach who practises corporate settings, I can vouch that employees who don’t speak up are commonplace. In fact, studies have shown that 50% of employees choose to stay quiet. This ambivalence reinforces employees’ decision to numb themselves to dissatisfaction. 

Issues employees don’t speak up about

why employees don't speak up

Workload

According to Benenden Health, increasing workloads is among the top issues in the workplace. An employee’s workload expectations are shaped by their working hours and job scope. However, organisational factors such as budget cuts and a lack of role transparency can require them to go above and beyond. Long exposure to heavy workloads can lead to issues such as burnout, sleep disturbances, declined performance, and deteriorated mental health.

Management

Managers play an important role in leading their teams. Often, team members even look to them as role models. While it’s important to remember that managers are not superhumans, they should be suitably trained by organisations to coach, delegate, create psychological safety, deliver feedback, and maintain employee engagement. These are especially crucial for newly promoted and middle managers. Without these skill sets, a suboptimal work environment can translate to increased turnover, decreased morale, and lower productivity. 

Interpersonal relationships

Good communication skills help us build and maintain positive relationships with coworkers. We put these into action when sharing experiences, connecting with others, or simply exchanging information. Though these are everyday applications, communication breakdowns remain a common issue experienced by employees. My clients, for starters, have cited language barriers, misinterpretations, and a lack of feedback as barriers to engagement and connection with their coworkers.

Company policies

In fast-paced companies or startups, employees have to contend with ever-changing policy changes. Every round of revision comes with a teething period, and employees can struggle to adapt while juggling day-to-day roles and responsibilities. When new policies lack clarity, they become a source of uncertainty, confusion, and frustration that increases the likelihood of dissatisfaction. 

Why don’t employees speak up?

Lack of system for anonymous reporting

When employees are not assured that raising their concerns will not affect their employment in any way, shape, or form, they fear getting fired, demoted, or even blacklisted. This is where a system of anonymous reporting can go beyond lip service.

Anonymous reporting serves as a bridge between employers and employees, allowing the latter to disclose information more transparently. Recently, a client of mine told me of his unhappiness about working on rest days. He was tempted to lodge a report but decided to remain quiet after learning that it would be addressed in team meetings. While the obligation to reveal one’s identity enables managers to follow up accordingly, it puts employees off more often than not. On the surface, it may seem like nobody has any issues to flag. But, beneath it, an undercurrent of discontent could be running.

Lack of skills to speak up effectively

No one is born with great communication skills. Some employees may be aware of their thoughts and feelings, yet struggle to express them constructively. When the content is not delivered well, even the best ideas or most legitimate complaints could be dismissed. A client of mine thought of a brilliant way to improve the company’s KPI system but did not share it with the management. A lack of confidence and assertiveness, which some training may remedy, undermined her ability to disseminate a good idea. 

The reality of the Asian culture

In our Asian culture, employees generally perceive organisations to be hierarchical, paternalistic, and directive. In their eyes, authority is concentrated at the top. Closed off to ideas and feedback, management must have the final say. 

From my experience, these limiting beliefs impact an organisation’s structure, operations, relationships, and culture significantly. A client of mine, who did not agree with his company’s new allowance system, shied away from making a report. The reason? His colleagues, who also felt unhappy about it, complied with the “orders” from above. Fearing that he would be seen as the “black sheep”, he decided against giving feedback. 

“Nothing will happen”

Imagine this: You raise a concern once, or even twice, but it is neither acknowledged nor attended to. Naturally, you would not be compelled to bring it up a third time. When feedback is not taken seriously, employees go quiet. Especially for individuals who, despite the above barriers, muster the courage to speak up, being dismissed can feel discouraging. On top of these, a lack of recognition for good ideas makes employees less motivated to innovate proactively. This feeling of jadedness is among the major issues that organisations experience. 

What’s next?

Not everyone is comfortable expressing opinions, concerns and ideas before an audience. There are reasons behind avoidance, and psychological safety is key to a workplace that listens to and values employees. 

Not sure how to get started? Read our article on fostering and measuring psychological safety here.

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