What are the benefits of getting your employees to speak up, and do you really want them to do it all of the time? These are some of the questions that Prof. Ethan Burris discussed with attendees of the Cultivate Employee Empowerment Summit during his recent session.

Prof. Burris is a professor of management at the University of Texas at Austin and studies the effects of empowerment and employee voice on business objectives. His research has found that getting employees to share feedback and ideas is harder than it seems, and why some of the actions organizations often take to encourage this are not actually effective. Here’s a recording of Prof. Burris’s session, and a summary of his main points.

Employees don’t speak up because of fear and futility
Employee voice is important in the right circumstances, but do employees always speak up? Research says they often don’t. There are two reasons why. The first is fear – employees think they’ll be retaliated against if they speak their mind or tell management things they don’t want to hear. The second is futility – they believe that no one will listen to them or that nothing will change, so why should they bother? To encourage employees to speak up in a constructive way, organizations need to solve for fear and futility.

Employees on the front lines have ideas, but no power to implement them
According to Prof. Burris’ research, the people working on the ground floor of an organization, doing the most hands-on work with products and interacting with customers and buyers, tend to have the most ideas for how to improve the business. But they have the least amount of power to implement those ideas. As you move up in the ranks, employees have more and more ability to make changes, but fewer and fewer insights into what those changes should be. Organizations need front-line workers to share those ideas with management and leadership so they can put them into practice.

Employee voice needs to lead to action
Some of Prof. Burris’s research found that turnover in restaurants increased when employees shared ideas with unresponsive managers, but it decreased when employees shared ideas with responsive managers. The act of sharing wasn’t enough to produce positive outcomes on its own – someone needed to listen as well. In fact, if managers are not responsive, then it’s better for the business (at least in terms of turnover) if employees don’t speak up at all!

Employee voices need to flow to people who can make changes
Another piece of Prof. Burris’s research found that business units within financial institutions were most effective when ideas flowed to the managers that were able to implement changes. These units, where managers received input from their own employees as well as people in other business units, were more productive. Units where employees spoke up to one another, or to people in different business units, but not to their managers (where the employee voices “flowed around” managers) were less productive. The difference in financial and operating performance between these two groups was 20 percent!

Organizations need to develop a listening ecosystem
One effective way to gather employee feedback, according to Prof. Burris, is to develop a listening ecosystem with several different channels to collect employee feedback. This can include yearly employee censuses or polls, entry and exit surveys, pulse surveys, ambient data collection tools that look at employee email and chat messages, HR tickets and social listening. The key for organizations, according to Prof. Burris, is to create a space for employees to speak up, then figure out a way to translate those ideas into actions.

Stay tuned over the coming weeks for more video recaps from the Employee Empowerment Summit presentations. You can find all of the Summit videos here.



Cultivate is a digital leadership platform that leverages artificial intelligence (AI) to provide in-the-moment feedback and tools to enterprise employees. Our mission is to help build stronger workplace relationships, and empower people leaders and employees to be more effective, engaged, and balanced.