- Brenda Nguyen
- Dec 14, 2016
Brenda Nguyen is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ivey Business School and works closely with the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership in promoting leader character, which shares strong connections with voice, through her research.
In an age when information and communication are at a premium in the workplace, we demand qualities such as transparency from our leaders to work effectively. But, few of us have thought about how we, as members of our unit or department, exchange and communicate information. How many times have you sat in a meeting and remained silent only to voice your thoughts later to another colleague? Or how often were you dissatisfied with your meeting with the boss and then vented to a co-worker in another department? There may be instances when you voiced thoughts to your leader, but only after painstakingly pondering every angle, dissecting each word, and crafting the perfect sentences. This can distract you from your task for countless hours, not to mention the anxiety and stress involved in the deliberation and workup to approach your boss. If you don’t relate to these examples, you’ve likely experienced team meetings where one or two members dominate the conversation while others are mute.
As members of organizations, we house an abundance of knowledge and information. The leader and team can only benefit from our knowledge if we choose to share it. This is particularly true when our input challenges the status quo or might improve current or proposed practises.
On December 2, I met a leading expert on employee voice, Professor Jim Detert, from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, whose paper won this year’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership’s annual prize for the best leadership article published in a top-tier journal. Detert visited Ivey to present the winning paper, "Voice Flows to and around Leaders: Understanding When Units Are Helped or Hurt by Employee Voice." The paper examines how the structure of voice flows in organizations can enhance or undermine performance. Some of the key issues he raised mirrored the above-mentioned scenarios. What I learned was insightful, intuitive, and personally powerful.
Voice is a resource that can enhance a leader’s performance because he or she gains access to more information, insights, and suggestions from employees. Voice that flows from team members, both inside and outside the unit, to the leader is highly instrumental in bringing about change, as well as team trust and feelings of psychological safety. This enhances the team’s overall performance. However, when team members voice their thoughts without the leader present, it can worsen team performance. Doing so undermines the leader’s authority and takes time away from core tasks.
Detert’s work not only highlighted the importance of speaking up, it also emphasized the importance of who was spoken to. The leader’s ability to create a team in which voice is used positively is critical. It can strongly determine to whom you direct your voice. A leader who fails to consider the team members’ input will cut off any voice flows.
Detert’s research gives me food for thought. It will make me think twice in the future about to whom I direct my voice and whether my voice will help or hinder my leader’s and team’s performance – and, ultimately, my own. But one thing is certain: voice matters. It is not always easy to put ideas on the line, especially to your boss. It takes courage.