Over the past several months I’ve been working with several major public hospitals throughout Asia on how they can effectively develop a ‘speak-up’ culture. Healthcare professionals at Asia’s often overcrowded public hospitals are highly prone to stress due to long working-hours, angry patients and staff shortages. Such toxic working conditions invariably impair job performance resulting in endangering patient safety and care. Encouraging employees to speak up can have a preventive effect on mitigating such risks.

Although most organisations actively encourage their employees to speak up and communicate ideas to their managers and leaders, it’s much harder to put into practice. This is because most of us are reluctant, uncomfortable and fearful of offending our bosses and leaders. Particularly in Asia whose culture is steeped in hierarchy and deference, it’s an uphill battle to get its workers to direct their communications to people of higher authority and power.

In recent years there has been much academic research undertaken to understand the factors that lead or inhibit employees feeling safe speaking up. Professor Elizabeth W. Morrison of New York University has recently integrated those theories and research into a model of employee voice. In this model, she identified two key influencing factors that are key to developing a speak-up culture – individual differences and contextual factors.

Individual differences include demographics, level of experience, length of tenure, job level, work performance, job attitudes and role definitions. They also tend to apply across all situations. For example, an employee who has been working in the company for more than 10 years and is highly respected for her expertise is more likely to speak up to raise her concerns or point out a mistake.

On the other hand, the contextual factors reside at the organisational level that determines how employee voice is likely to be received. They include organisational structure and culture, workgroup size and setup, collective norms, relationship with supervisors and leadership styles. As pointed out earlier this is why employees working in Asia generally perceive their organisations, which are highly hierarchical, paternalistic and directive, as not particularly open, conducive or interested to their ideas, suggestions or criticisms.

So how can leaders and managers effectively develop and perhaps evena speak-up culture in their organisations? I’ve provided the following suggestions, which is best adopted collectively rather than independently, in a framework aptly named as SPEAK:

Safe. Organisations must first create a safe work environment for all employees to direct issues, concerns and problems to the attention of their leaders and managers higher up in the hierarchy. This can be achieved formally by installing the appropriate speak-up policies and procedures. According to Philippa Beck from the Institute of Business Ethics, this act will “send a strong message to all levels that bad organisational practice will not be tolerated. They can also reassure employees that their concerns are important and encourage problems to be brought to the attention of management from within the company”.

Power. This second point speaks particular volume to Asia where the power distance is relatively large between bosses and their subordinates. As Professors James Detert and Ethan Burris wrote in their recent HBR article, for leaders to really learn the truth from ‘below them’ on the corporate ladder, it’s important they play down their power cues when interacting with employees. One practical advice they offered to reduce this psychological distance is for leaders to practise MBWA (management by walking around) by reaching out to their employees in the cafeteria, hallway or where they work.

Example. As the Chinese ancient proverb says, ‘the fish rots from the head down’. It is critical that every leader sets a good role model or example of being open, respectful and accessible to all employees. How does this play out in practice, as it’s unrealistic for organisations in Asia to expect their managers to become inclusive overnight?

A recent survey conducted by the Founder and CEO of the Centre for Talent Innovation Sylvia Ann Hewlett reveals that employees are 4.5 times more likely to freely express their views when leaders exhibit most of these inclusive behaviours: (1) ask questions and listen carefully; (2) facilitate constructive argument; (3) give actionable feedback; (4) take advice from the team and act on it; (5) share credit for team success and (6) maintain regular contact with team members.

Actions. Most research on employee silence points out that a big reason for employees withholding ideas and concerns is the belief that managers would not take action about them anyway. This is known in previous organisational studies as the feelings of futility or resignation (e.g. “Why bother to speak up when no one will listen and do anything?”).

Organisations can follow these simple four action planning principles to provide reassurance to all employees that leaders are truly genuine in taking follow-up actions to make a real change: (1) achieve clarity on the underlying causes; (2) involve employees in developing the solution; (3) focus on one or two issues that will make the greatest difference; and (4) provide regular updates on progress.

KPIs. As management guru Peter Drucker once said: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” This saying is so true in today’s work environment where even the best-intentioned leaders often fail in following up on actions because they are inundated with meeting multiple datelines and priorities.

Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson suggested that all leaders should be measured as part of their overall key performance indicators (KPIs) on their openness to input from below in a 360-degree performance evaluation. Further, a cut-off score is to be set for this measure such that those below the threshold could not be promoted. One good question that I have used often with my clients is: “I can freely express my view to my manager without fear of retribution.”

It’s easy to blame it on culture for employees’ fear of speaking up in Asia. However this persistent employee silence has caused widespread and sometimes lethal consequences, such as those experienced by its healthcare, manufacturing, building and even the airline industry (remember the famous plane Korean Air crash in Guam where the pilot made an error and the co-pilot was too afraid to correct him). It’s time for Asian leaders to radically change its existing fear culture and boldly create a positive work environment that encourages open discussion, debate and dialogue.

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About Contributor

Stephen Choo is a Senior Client Partner and Managing Director (Products Group) for Korn Ferry Hay Group based in the firm's Singapore office. He partners with the world's leading firms in utilizing Korn Ferry Hay Group's intellectual properties, latest technologies and best-in-class databases to better attract, engage and retain talent to achieve high performance. The range of products and solutions include pay benchmarking, psychometric assessment tools and employee survey diagnostics. Stephen has more than 20 years of experience in management and HR consulting.

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