In a recent post on Harvard Business Online, authors James R. Detert and Amy C. Edmondson summarize a recent study they conducted on the root causes of why employees are afraid to speak up. Immediately prior to coming upon this article, I was talking to my manager about the exact same thing. My experience in my new company to date has been that direct reports (employee, mid-management, etc.) behave and contribute differently when their management is present as opposed to when they are not. Sometimes, even providing conflicting comments in these separate scenarios.

In the article, Detert and Edmondson narrow down the reasoning behind “not speaking up” to “self-preservation.” Interestingly enough, the reasons given by the interviewees for holding back on constructive feedback or ideas for improvement were mostly founded in cultural myth.

A culture of collective myths proved chilling—for example, stories of
individuals who had said something in a public venue and then, as one
R&D director put it, were “suddenly gone from the company.

Despite having processes and tools to allow for employees to provide input and feedback, the main reason appears to be culture. I would add to this that the actual behaviour of management is also a significant contributor. Many managers I have observed will routinely ask for comment or feedback, but when it is given, the manager will summarily dismiss it or respond defensively instead of openly. So, although a culture steeped in myth can prevent a new employee for intially attempting to speak up, the behaviours and mannerisms of those receiving the feedback when given can be equally squelching to a safe, open and collaborative culture.

Those in management, or any leadership position will have to move beyond their own self-preservation and self-deception. Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers demand these more progressively open environments. Our work ethic is not about winning or being right, it is about working to a set of values, working collaboratively and fully enjoying our work and with whom we work. We are not opposed to having our ideas challenged. Quite the opposite. When working with intelligent and creative peers, we excel and deliver much more than we ever could individually. At the same time, we are willing to share in the glory of accomplishment.

Words of advice to those in authority positions – Don’t fear new ideas and new ways of solving your challenges. Openly embrace them. You don’t have to implement every one of them. But, trust me, there is value out there – you just have to have your eyes, ears, heart and mind open to it.