How to help your team overcome the virus of self-censorship

Aligning an individual’s purpose, values and beliefs with the organisations’ will ensure they have the confidence and tools to have a voice.

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Vulnerability. It gives me confidence to let go, build trust, embrace conflict and allows everyone in a team to share our individual truth.

I was working with a team member just the other day in a one-to-one. We met outside the office, we always meet in a café, it feels right. I do this with all team members. There was a brilliant winter sunshine, and we ordered lunch and sat at a large country kitchen table in comfy armchairs. Ah, this is how to do business!

I was helping him get clear on his story, values and beliefs which in time helps him get to grips with his purpose. I do with everyone in my team. My goal is to help them use their purpose as a mission statement to live by.

There I was, sitting there, eating, and Andrew turned around and said, “How did you come upon your purpose and what’s important to you?”

I found myself being quite open, more so than I would normally. I’m not saying I wouldn’t be open usually, but I was quite vulnerable in a way, and that vulnerability brought about a deeper connection and understanding.

I know we all know that’s how to do this leadership thingy, but it struck me in that moment. I can’t control everything. I must help create a willingness to be vulnerable and open about mistakes and weaknesses. And encourage unfiltered passionate debate of ideas. By doing this myself.

I know we may find it difficult to be aware of all the goings-on within the organisation…

We have to rely on the team to raise issues and provide different perspectives to function efficiently.

I have seen this flow of information act as a catalyst for my management to take action to improve processes, prevent mistakes and communicate better. The success of this, however, is dependent on the employee’s willingness to share opinions, ideas or highlight issues – especially towards higher authority with the intention of bringing about change, or otherwise known as “voice” of employees.

In this one-to-one with Andrew, I wanted him to use his voice to generate creative endeavours, ensure grievances are aired and prevent unethical actions.

Encouraging the use of employee voice as an instrument for change is not as simple as it may seem…

Employees may appear hesitant to share their thoughts or propose ideas – I know Andrew was at times – even making efforts to downplay the information given – especially if it’s bad news. But why?

One running suggestion is the culture of the workplace which does not encourage the use of voice by employees, or that the direct managers themselves intentionally (or even unknowingly) silence their employees using a variety of tactics.

That is not always the case – there are many instances where managers ask for opinions, and end up being met with silence from their employees. So what’s going on here?

The theory of self-censorship

I recently read a paper published by James R. Detert and Amy C. Edmondson from Cornell University and Harvard University respectively, in which they hypothesised the presence of Implicit Voice Theories, which represent beliefs that individuals have about the use of voice in the workplace. 

Quite simply, it suggests that people make assumptions about the inherent risk or inappropriateness of speaking up to their supervisors and management. These assumptions and beliefs lead to a reluctance to use their voice – even if they may be encouraged to do so by their supervisors themselves. God knows I have encouraged Andrew. These theories introduce a deeper level of understanding how employees may choose to practise self-censorship, thus impeding the process of building a culture of voice in the organisation.

Typically, studies have shown that the use of voice is influenced by the feeling of psychological safety, which may be present due to different contextual factors such as having supportive leaders or personal orientations towards duties. 

The implicit voice theories indicate that another process works alongside or beyond this, with people choosing to remain silent because of socially learned ideas of the implications of using their voice in the organisation.

Recent studies have shown that despite bosses encouraging and supporting employees to use their voice in the workplace, people still find it difficult. In a particular series of experiments conducted by Detert & Edmonson, they found that employees may often worry that managers or the person they’re speaking to may take personal offence, they don’t want to cause embarrassment or seem like they’re bypassing their boss, and even may feel that using their voice will have a negative impact on their career.

What was interesting about their findings were the fact that many of their participants had not experienced any situation that would support these assumptions, and some had even bosses who were encouraging and supportive of voice. 

Social learning from past experiences

Regardless, these beliefs persisted, and continued to act as a reason for employees to practise self-censorship in their workplace. One suggestion is that these implicit voice theories are a result of social learning from early experiences with authority figures in one’s life, and how one was expected to act – either towards a parent, or a teacher.

These theories do not necessarily discount the need for the harnessing of an open culture where employees feel safe to speak out, but rather indicate an even larger need for management to take effort to build these safe environments to challenge these possible barriers. 

Providing people with more proof to challenge their assumptions may eventually lead to improvements and further encourage the use of voice in the organisation. 

Reflecting on my relationship building with Andrew…

Back to my conversation with Andrew.I was astounded by my openness and his keenness to hear my story.

My vulnerability helped me connect with my stories and allowed us to connect on a deeper level, which can lead to a fuller understanding, and at work in business it can lead to increased collaboration, productivity, and cohesiveness. Andrew too started to open up.

My vulnerability gave Andrew the confidence to share his truth. When we share in this way, oxytocin is released in the brain. This feeds that feel-good feeling you get when you’ve done a good job, achieved a goal, or eaten chocolate. A deeper sense of trust is developed, and our relationships change.

Everyone has vulnerabilities, emotions, and personality components for good or bad. By hiding those vulnerabilities, we are essentially denying a major part of our personalities. 

Being vulnerable means taking a risk

This can be daunting for one employee to do, but when all employees, and certainly leaders, feel comfortable taking the vulnerability plunge, everyone can benefit. Embracing vulnerability can look different for everyone. 

Start by noticing how you behave at work, who you are. Notice too who you are at home – are they the same person? Most probably not. Well not entirely. Most people let themselves relax and be comfortable at home, so try to embrace similar principles at work. See if you can bring to work a version of self you wouldn’t ordinarily do. Notice the impact, for you and for others. 

Next, use that personality for real conversations. People want to work with a human, not a robot, and most people are excited to talk about their personal lives and emotions, either good or bad. Build connections with co-workers through real, honest conversations. Having open, non-judgemental conversations fosters an environment of cohesiveness and teamwork where people feel they can share issues and ideas, both personal and professional, in a safe atmosphere. 

That emotion can also translate to the boardroom. Don’t be afraid to be invested and show emotion about a project or report. You might not always be successful but getting emotionally invested in a project encourages others to do the same and can improve employees’ morale and excitement.

Vulnerability is still somewhat of a taboo term in many workplaces. However, as more leaders and employees capitalise on their vulnerabilities, workplace environments can become more conducive to real connections, growth, and opportunities to increase trust, engagement, and respect, which are all important factors for success in the future of work.  

There is a need for managers to be aware of these implicit beliefs that people hold as it does impact the dynamics of the workplace…

Although for a single manager it may seem unfounded to tiptoe around the issue, there is room to argue that managers can take steps to ensure they do not inadvertently act in ways that confirm the beliefs of their employees – leading to further conditioning and strengthening of these assumptions.

There may be value for managers to approach these beliefs head on by specifically disproving their possibilities, such as the threat of negative consequences to an employee’s career if they speak up.

My suggestion is to work closely with employees, either one-to-one or in small groups to help them define their purpose and build a plan to live it. Aligning an individual’s purpose, values and beliefs with the organisations’ will ensure they have the confidence and tools to have a voice. Letting go the need for self-censorship and embracing their truth.

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