Workers and employers alike benefit when workers feel they have a voice within their organization, but new research argues that voice is too broad a concept for workplaces to design for.

In a paper commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and published in the Human Resource Management Journal, a team of HR scholars make the case that organizations should instead focus on encouraging two distinct types of worker feedback: organizational voice, when workers share ideas for ways to improve the team or the company, and employee voice, when workers speak up for their own needs.

The researchers found that employee voice was associated with lower levels of burnout, while organizational voice was associated with higher levels of innovation—likely because soliciting feedback on organizational change “shows that the organization has some kind of strategic commitment” to engaging with new ideas, explains paper co-author Helen Shipton, a professor of human resource management at Nottingham Business School in the UK. A complicating factor, though, is the finding that organizational voice also correlates with higher levels of burnout.

We spoke with Shipton and another co-author, Daniel King—also an HR professor at Nottingham—about how workplaces can effectively encourage and balance the two types of voice. Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

What would be an example of each type of voice in practice?

Shipton: Organizational voice is primarily concerned with, how does an employee suggest improvements for the organization? It’s focused on what makes things better in the organization. It could be suggesting that your team could do something differently: Maybe we use a different technology for our team’s call, or maybe we have a new idea for improving customer relationships.

Employee-focused voice is all about self-expression. It’s being able to say things that may or may not lead to organizational improvements, but which are important for the employee. It might involve raising a suggestion about a perceived injustice at work. It might be a concern about work-life balance, or it might be a concern about a relationship with another member of staff that is important to that individual. It’s defined in terms of what matters to that person, what’s authentic.

How can organizations balance the two, so they capture the innovation benefits of organizational voice without over-indexing on its burnout effect?

Shipton: What we’re trying to communicate is the potential damage of overt focus on organizational voice at all costs—that’s the dark side of voice. If you really put everything into voice and don’t actually let any natural conversations evolve that are not to do with improvements, that’s where you’ve got the problem. When you have the two together, that’s where you have the optimum effect on burnout. One important area is in the management practices the organization uses. Have a performance-appraisal system set up to actually encourage line managers to understand about the two different forms of voice, and take into account how these two forms of voice are reported in the organization.

King: The importance of line management is so key, particularly in terms of employee-focused voice. We did a follow-up study looking at organizations trying to implement forms of voice and the different challenges, and one organization, for instance, brought in an organizational psychologist—they were a construction company, and it’s a very masculine environment where people traditionally don’t express their feelings. They were working very hard to think about how to bring in psychological safety, spending quite a lot of time training and supporting managers in order to facilitate those conversations. But often those managers, foreman and other people in those roles, treated people the way they were treated in how they were trained up.

Trying to shift culture can be quite a big challenge over time. It’s important to recognize how deep-rooted some of these things are. You can’t just suddenly announce, ‘We want to encourage more employee voice.’ It can take time, particularly in industries that have a very performance-driven culture.

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To what extent does employer action play into voice—not just encouraging workers to share feedback, but reacting to that feedback?

Shipton: One part of our measure of employee-focused voice is what we call voice efficacy. That’s the sense that people feel that their input is acknowledged and there’s some idea that they can make a difference. Self-expression, transparency, and voice efficacy are three of the fundamental principles behind employee-focused voice.

King: As an example, we did a follow-up study with the CIPD looking at how some organizations would try to implement voice. One of them set up a suggestion scheme and got completely overwhelmed with the number of suggestions. And the implication was then that people didn’t feel they were listened to, because they were so overwhelmed they didn’t have the mechanisms in place to provide any feedback to people. So when thinking through a mechanism like that, thinking through the whole cycle of managing it and giving feedback to people is a really important part of the process, both for employee voice and for organizational voice.

Given that many leadership teams are working with tighter budgets right now, how can organizations ensure voice efficacy when workers are suggesting changes they can’t afford?

King: Research points to it being about transparency and the process rather than the actual decision. If you feel that the process has been done in a way that you have been listened to, that you understand the rationale behind the decision, then that leads to a better outcome than if it’s just said, ‘No, we can’t do it.’ Showing a transparent process and enabling people to feel like they’ve had their say, and the rationale behind the decision-making, is the way to lead to that.

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