How to Get Employees to Speak Up (Digitally)

We know that employees feeling empowered to express their opinions has many benefits in the workplace, such as improving team performance and opening honest feedback loops between employees and their bosses.

But how can a manager impact the motivation of employees to express their opinions and share feedback?

According to Harvard Business Review, it takes “cultural change that alters how [employees] understand the likely costs (personal and immediate) versus benefits (organizational and future) of speaking up.” And to reduce these costs as a manager you should “explicitly invite and acknowledge others’ ideas.”

At Cultivate, since we are interested in the digital behaviors of leaders, we wondered, does this advice hold true in a digital context?   

If a manager invites ideas and opinions of their direct reports, does that impact the rate of information shared by them?

To investigate, we analyzed over 1,000 digital relationships (email and IM conversations) between managers and their direct reports inside enterprise companies. We extracted the frequency with which managers exhibited evidence of valuing opinions of their direct reports, and in turn, their direct reports’ rate of sharing information with their manager.

Digital behaviors indicative of valuing opinions effort include:

  • Explicit asks for opinions and feedback
  • Sharing information in response to requests for feedback/information (responding encouragingly)
  • Quick response time

Digital behaviors indicative of information sharing include:

  • Sharing opinions
  • Sharing information
  • Making assertive statements of any kind

Intuitively, we found that managers who respond quickly and encouragingly to the opinions of their direct reports stimulate a higher rate of information sharing from their team. This incoming/outgoing correlation exhibits a strong, upward trend per the chart below.

Did you let that email or Slack message go a few days without answer? Do you not actively solicit input from your employees? Did you not give feedback on an opinion that was stated? As a manager, these things could decrease the likelihood of your employees speaking up (digitally).

Intrigued by these results, we decided to investigate what other digital behaviors by managers might impact the rate of information sharing by their direct reports. We decided to look at manager sentiment (positivity) next.

As a well documented driver of more engaged, relationship-driven workplaces, positivity appears that it could potentially lower the perceived personal cost of speaking up on a team. Deeper, more resilient relationships support the psychological safety necessary for fostering honest opinion sharing.

Again we tested our hypothesis in a digital context.

If a manager is more positive to their direct reports, does that impact the rate of information shared by them?

We found that outwards positivity by a manager does have a strong effect on the digital participation of team members, as measured by rates of sharing information. We see the most team participation if the manager communicates with high sentiment, versus an almost 12 percentile point decrease for highly negative managers.  

However, we also see diminishing returns with very high sentiment, where team participation actually dips when a managers increases from high to very high sentiment. It may require further study to see whether this effect persists more broadly across organizations.

Here are our main takeaways for managers looking to foster input from their teams:

  • It is always beneficial for managers to encourage and respond quickly to the opinions of their direct reports in digital conversations as that positively impacts their participation.
  • The tone of a manager’s messages may have an impact on their team’s participation. You can potentially spur team participation by being more positive or friendly if you aren’t currently.
  • As a manager, consider other ways in which you might lower the perceived cost of speaking up on your team and/or increase the perceived benefit of doing so. Is there any friction or social cost to speaking up that you could remove? Do you put good ideas to practice when it makes sense, and acknowledge them when it doesn’t?

About Cultivate

Cultivate’s mission is to help companies transform their next-generation leaders with data. Without surveys or user input, Cultivate turns a manager’s digital communication data into actionable leadership insight. Cultivate’s AI-driven coaching platform provides real-time feedback and recommendations to empower managers to improve leadership skills and strengthen workplace relationships in the digital age. Cultivate works with global Fortune 500 enterprises and has received $10 million in investment by leading venture capital investors focused on the future of work, such as Trinity Ventures and Bloomberg Beta. For more information, visit https://trycultivate.com.