It is good to talk – and listening is even better

This issue, the Research Inspector examines some of the studies exploring the workplace ‘voice’, and outlines details of a new survey that is being launched to support our interest in policing innovation and enterprise.

Jan 28, 2021
By Professor John Coxhead

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Health and Well-being at Work survey (for public services, 2020) identified that one of the benefits of proactive and positive support of the workforce was a 52 per cent increase in staff motivation and engagement.

Now while, of course, that is benefit enough – to help keep people more healthy – that link to engagement has another, additional business benefit. Edmondson (2018) has written extensively about the benefits of ‘psychological safety’ at work, by which she means a healthy place where people feel empowered to speak up, and in turn are listened to. That does not sound much of an insight but it makes a lot of sense if you consider what the opposite environment would look like – a place where people were scared to speak up because of the fear of being ridiculed and in turn not being listened to.

While the workplace ‘voice’ is of benefit to general wellbeing, it is also an important factor in how well any organisation helps enable innovation and enterprise. Brimhall (2019) and Diyanto (et al) (2019) both report on the link between employee engagement and the tangible benefits of innovation and performance enhancement. The link is all about creating the culture where voice is not only listened to, but actively encouraged.

A duologue of progressive change

Both Eeckelaert (2012) Benson and Dresdow (2015) review the connections between staff engagement and the proactive culture in high-performance settings that utilise the contribution and insight of staff as mutual gains. Burke and Sheldon (2010) have also reviewed approaches of how to create such a culture, such as the workplace ‘café’ dynamic; suffice to say simply having a system in place does not automatically achieve staff ‘buy-in’ – it has to be an authentic two-way relationship to engender trust.

The good news is that an expensive ‘process’ approach is not the best way to achieve staff engagement. People often work with others day-to-day and a straightforward way of achieving that psychological safety is to enable healthy relationships, whether peer-to-peer and staff with managers: talking and listening is good for people and business.

Carmeli and Gittell (2009) make the point that this healthy work environment is about being vulnerable with each other at times – meaning being able to discuss and review what we call ‘mistakes’ can be regarded as learning.

That also supports the notion of effective teams, rather than competitive individuals, which aligns with powerful points made by McChrystal (et al) (2019), as such a dynamic enables collective effort towards common goals.

The secret power of the moan

When individuals do feel able to speak up, and are listened to, what do they talk about? Well, in terms of innovation, the content is often about making a difference to the current situation: in other words, people would often like change, even if it is only minor, incremental change involving doing something different, or even stopping doing something that is not beneficial.

Ridley (2020) discusses how innovation is characterised throughout its global history as a form of change made possible by freedom of restriction. Innovation accelerates where the environment is imaginative rather than just conformist.

The history of innovation is also characterised by a form of ‘moan’ – a recognition and expression of challenging why things are the way they are and why they cannot be better. That energy of wanting to see things get better is a powerfully positive opportunity for change and progression, but only if it is not beaten back by the power of the status quo. The ‘just get on with it’ power of management can repress possibilities for change, and that can be costly in staff motivation and even the future success of the organisation.

It is stressful being ignored or being put down: it is motivational to be valued (Burke and Sheldon, 2010). Organisations that do not evolve and adapt tend to crumble (Heath 2020) and often the best people to spot opportunities to enhance and improve are those close to the shop floor.

When W. Edwards Deming helped Japan re-build industrial post-war capability he emphasised the importance of engagement in the workplace, where everyone felt part of the collective effort. Even today, Deming’s legacy is evident in Honda and Toyota’s operational culture, where the worker voice is not tolerated, it is insisted upon as a vital insight into quality and continual improvement.

You can also, sometimes, get more than calls for change as amendments to approach, in the shape of what Syed (2019) terms ‘rebel ideas’. Whether the ideas are evolution or revolution the key point is that progress will not be made unless someone speaks up and someone listens. When, as Ridley (2020) points out, the challenge of ‘why’ and the suggestion of ‘what if’ is valued, rather than received as a critical moan, things can start to change: people can feel better at being heard and valued and there can be genuine business benefits.

Speak up

Complementing our pioneering approach to driving innovation in policing (with our national competition to find the very best innovations for UK policing – do not forget the deadline of July 2021) we are also opening up a confidential survey to explore what those at the front line of delivery consider to be the barriers to doing the job better.

The survey seeks to identify the top five things that you think are ‘in the way’ (‘if only’), and invite your top five ideas that could make a difference (‘what if’). You might have thought about these before and never spoken up, or raised them but the idea never really got acknowledged.

Here is your big chance for catharsis; to raise old and stubborn niggles or New Year insights – and you can still also submit any relevant insights into the competition too.

We would like to collate the issues that police professionals identify to help promote your voice and get you listened to – which is in both your interests and that of policing overall. According to the research, it is the healthy thing to do.

To participate in the survey go to:

Professor John Coxhead works for the five forces and the offices of the police and crime commissioners of the East Midlands Policing Academic Collaboration and eight regional universities to develop policing research.

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