When employees share their perspectives, thoughts, and opinions in the workplace, everybody wins: people feel more comfortable with one another, there is stronger teamwork, and there is greater innovation.
Why, then, do so few employees speak up?
This problem is heightened in the tech industry. Despite the clear benefits of everybody having and using a voice in software development, many software engineers and other tech professionals are reluctant to share their ideas or don’t feel comfortable doing so.
One study of a Microsoft business unit found that nearly half of employees surveyed said they speak about five or fewer topics with their managers.
Given that a variety of perspectives is critical to a thriving tech business, it’s clear that this cannot remain the status quo.
Why Is It So Difficult to Speak Up in Tech?
More than 90% of CEOs and CFOs say that improving their corporate culture would increase the overall value of their companies. Yet work culture is one of the main reasons why employees feel stifled within an organization.
The tech industry can be a competitive environment. Depending on the organizational culture and leadership styles within a company, some engineers worry about saying the wrong thing — to the point where they avoid saying anything at all.
Some employees may not vocalize their opinion simply because they aren’t asked. But research shows that when workers believe their leader encourages them and solicits their opinions, they are more likely to speak up.
Of course, personality does play a role in an individual’s likelihood of asserting themselves in the workplace. In particular, many employees lack the confidence to share their ideas — 40%, according to a study performed in collaboration with the University of North Colorado Social Research lab.
That said, strong management and leadership can override reluctant or introverted personalities. In a supportive environment, even the shyest of employees may be compelled to speak up and share their ideas.
Problems with leadership can stem from numerous sources. For example, some leaders in tech come from business backgrounds rather than tech backgrounds, which can lead to a disconnect between the leader and the team. Non-managerial software engineers and tech professionals may worry that a manager or higher-up doesn’t understand their workflow and therefore hesitate to vocalize concerns or ideas.
Some leaders may be focused on continuing to do things the way they have always been done. In other words, they’re stuck in the past — something that can’t happen in an industry that depends on constant innovation. Again, this may lead team members to believe that vocalizing their opinions will do more harm than good with an out-of-touch leader.
These are just some of the many communication problems that can arise with poor leadership.
How to Empower Engineers to Speak Up
1. Emphasize the Role of Choice
Research in the Harvard Business Review found that employees “were more likely to share their ideas and opinions at a company whose culture emphasized the idea that people always have a choice.”
Thus, organizations should always make it clear that individuals have agency. When this commitment is encouraged as part of the culture, employees are more likely to speak up and share their thoughts. According to the author of the HBR study, this is likely because employees are able to influence their own environments while expressing their beliefs and values.
2. Train Employees in Critical Thinking
It’s said that there are no bad ideas, but ultimately some ideas have greater merit than others. A main reason why employees fear speaking up is that they worry that others will perceive their ideas as stupid.
One way to help boost software engineers’ confidence in their ideas is to help them boost their critical thinking skills. Forty-five percent of employees say there is no training in critical thinking or problem-solving available to them at their organizations. How can we expect individuals to share if they lack the skills necessary to ideate confidently?
By instituting training programs to assist employees with building these important skills, leaders can help their teams gain confidence in their own abilities.
3. Take It Slow
It’s unreasonable to expect employees to make a 180 immediately. Those who have been reluctant to speak up in the past aren’t going to change their ways overnight, even if you believe you have been putting measures in place to encourage their participation. Give them a chance to get comfortable, and don’t force the issue.
Encourage incremental improvements, rather than insisting on a dramatic change all at once. That means you shouldn’t be calling people out in large meetings, for example, because this will only embarrass them and push them further into their shells.
Instead, take it slow. You might start by asking them for input on a subject in which they have a lot of expertise in a small meeting or one on one, for instance.
4. Emphasize Collaboration
Teamwork naturally promotes participation. When individuals are actively collaborating, they are sharing their ideas, vocalizing their thoughts, expressing problems or suggestions, and otherwise speaking up. This type of contribution is not as formal as a meeting, but it means that colleagues are engaged and working together.
Collaboration offers many benefits. It’s an informal means of boosting communication, so if your organization focuses on increasing collaboration across the board, this can aid less-vocal team members in speaking up more frequently.
5. Make Meetings Valuable
Meetings can be intimidating — and oftentimes unnecessary.
One way to encourage valuable participation is to ensure that the meetings you have are truly valuable and the best use of everyone’s time. For example, you can keep your check-in meetings on the calendar, but strive to keep them short when there aren’t many items on the agenda.
This also means making your meetings more approachable and encouraging participation from everyone who has something to contribute — not just department heads or managers. There should also be time for questions and contributions, and it should be clear that all questions matter and none are time-wasters.
It’s also helpful to send out an agenda ahead of time and ask if anyone wants to add items or send questions so everyone is prepared.
6. Foster a Psychologically Safe Environment
Ultimately, people need to feel safe in their environments. This applies to the workplace as much as it does to the home or any other personal space.
When leaders make an effort toward improving their workplaces and making their staff feel psychologically safe, these individuals are more likely to feel comfortable sharing their ideas and contributing to the culture.
Research shows that there is a link between well-being in the workplace and creative performance. Support measures need to be in place to promote not only greater participation but also a more energized and positive atmosphere — one where engineers at all levels feels comfortable speaking up, vocalizing their concerns, and sharing their innovative ideas.