As all employers know, organizations are susceptible to a wide variety of problems, including unproductive processes, misaligned strategies, underperforming employees, and ineffective policies.
According to a new study by leadership training firm VitalSmarts, these problems are compounded when employees are either unable or unwilling to speak up quickly when they see something wrong.
The research, led by David Maxfield and Steve Willis, revealed that the ability to speak up in the moment is necessary for companies to thrive.
"The health of a business relationship, team, or organization is a function of the average time lag between identifying and discussing problems," said VitalSmarts VP of Research David Maxfield in a news release.
"This lag time between identifying and discussing problems is known as the accountability gap.
"In companies where the accountability gap is short, employees are quicker to speak up and hold each other accountable."
Conversely, in corporate cultures where there is a significant time lag between identifying and discussing problems—a large accountability gap—employees clam up to the detriment of the organization.
According to the study of 792 professionals:
- Fifty-two percent of employees hesitate to discuss peer performance problems, like improper shortcuts, poor attention to detail, and incomplete work.
- Forty-seven percent say they wait to share concerns or ideas that might improve an element of the business because it encroaches on somebody else's turf.
- Forty-nine percent take more than a week to speak up when policy decisions are beginning to create unintended negative consequences.
- Fifty-five percent are reluctant to speak up when they believe someone (or a group) has made a bad strategic choice.
The Cost of Silence
Where the accountability gap is short, teams are more likely to innovate, execute on plans, engage employees, and retain top talent.
This is made clear in correlations found by the study between average lag time in employees reporting a problem and estimated costs to the company.
For example, when three days or fewer pass between the identification of a problem and a frank, honest, respectful conversation about it, roughly $5,000 is wasted, according to the survey data.
When the accountability gap reaches five days or more, employees estimate more than $25,000 is wasted.
These figures highlight a frustrating trend. Companies want greater accountability but are often slow to adopt new skills and systems needed for genuine progress.
The Importance of Social Support
To foster a culture with high accountability, they must provide greater social and organizational support.
"We are undergoing major, long-needed social shifts in our expectations of workplace environments, but until we build supporting structures, we will struggle to see genuine change," said Maxfield.
"Companies, in particular, have a responsibility to provide safe harbors for their employees to share concerns."
The primary reason people don't speak up at work relates to a lack of—or perceived lack of—social support.
When employees do not feel welcome to share concerns, problems, issues, or ideas that might infringe on another's territory, they keep quiet.
According to the study:
- Many (45%) did not believe others would join in support, leaving them socially stranded.
- Almost half (46%) expected retaliation from impacted parties, regardless of any laws or regulations to prohibit such actions.
- More than a third (37%) were afraid speaking up might damage their career, labeling them as a persistent complainer.
People don't want to be the Lone Ranger.
In companies with long accountability gaps, speaking up can feel like risking job or reputation. In companies with short accountability gaps, speaking up feels like social support.
When employees feel socially supported, they hold each other accountable, both up and down the chain of command. The practice builds on itself.
Although leadership bears the burden of training employees and providing resources, not all responsibility falls on their shoulders.
As organizations establish safe channels and encourage people to speak up, employees need to take advantage of those opportunities.
As it is, many employees internalize frustrations with coworkers (64%), avoid working with them on projects (44%), or even avoid them altogether (43%).
The latter two responses are appropriate when a person feels unsafe, but if employees refuse to share concerns through safe channels, the company can't take action.
To close the accountability gap, both leaders and employees must improve their dialogue skills and overcome fears—to face problems head-on.
As team members discuss problems, they must also bring insights from those frank, honest, respectful discussions to bear.
"Companies need to do two basic things: listen more and speak up faster," said Maxfield.