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Individual voice and organizational voice: are they different, and does it matter? 


At Nottingham Business School, I together with colleagues have for some years worked in partnership with the CIPD on the topic of Employee Voice. A first stage of the research involved a survey, administered through YouGov, which reached out to a cross-section of employees based in the UK (2374 individuals).  In the survey, we asked about employees’ perceptions of leadership, their levels of commitment to the organization, experiences of HR, individual differences, wellbeing, and burnout. 

Most importantly- indeed, central to our study- we sought to capture the extent to which people in our sample perceived that they had voice in the workplace. But here we faced a dilemma.  Although the CIPD strongly believes, as we do, that voice is important for its own sake, regardless of whether it leads to improvements in organizational functioning, most studies focus on voice as a tool for positive change. We wanted to understand not just whether people felt that their suggestions and ideas helped promote better functioning (important though this is) but also if employees felt able to express their opinions, concerns, and suggestions- and for these to have an effect. 

Accordingly, after searching the literature, we developed a new measure, which we labelled ‘Individual Voice’, asking employees about their essential humanity at work, probing areas such as whether ‘In my work unit, I can express my true feelings regarding my job’. We also captured in the measure whether employee believed that voice could make a difference on matters important to them.  

We also measured, using a pre-existing scale, whether employees experienced ‘Organisational Voice,’ that is if people felt able to offer ‘constructive challenge intended to improve rather than merely criticise’ (Van Dyne & LePine, 1998, p. 109).  

 Uniquely, based on these two measures, and using this nationally representative survey, we were able to explore several important questions. 

First, we wanted to understand whether the two voice constructs- individual and organisational voice- were indeed distinctive from one another- that is, whether the study does indeed tap into different ways in which people experience voice at work. 

Second, we sought to understand whether the enablers of individual voice would be different from those giving rise to organizational voice. 

Third, we wanted to understand what kind of effects the two voice forms might have on employee attitudes and behaviours in the workplace. Would individual voice, for example, make a difference to employees’ levels of burnout at work?  Would organisational voice be especially beneficial to promoting employee innovative behaviours? 

Finally, we needed to explore the reasons behind the apparent differentiation of the two forms.  If the constructs are unique and different, why might this be so?  What might explain any different patterns in terms of antecedents and outcomes? 

In detail 

We used the idea that human behaviour is regulated through two independent systems- the behavioural activation system and the behavioural inhibition system- to inform our interrogation of the data (Carver & White, 1994; Sherf et al., 2018). These systems operate separately from one another to guide goal choice and influence the degree of effort expended.  

Based on this theory, we argue that individual voice arises where people are (relatively) free of threat and anxiety.  Psychological safety- ‘peoples’ perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context such as a workplace (Edmondson & Lei, 2014) is likely to be especially important for individual voice because it creates an atmosphere when discussion can be opened to cover areas that stand out for the employee. 

On the other hand, for organizational voice to occur, people need to be clear that speaking up will lead to an improved situation- this behaviour is ‘activated’ towards a positive end result. One powerful activator is the line manager.  Where the line manager actively solicits voice, people are likely to respond with their suggestions for improvement (but less likely to talk about their individual concerns).  Line manager solicitation of voice- the efforts made to encourage people to speak up, make suggestions and effect change- is likely to be a key predictor of organisational voice. 

There are consequences too arising from the two voice forms for employee attitudes and behaviours.  How people feel about work, their levels of commitment to the organization, and the extent to which they embrace creativity and innovation in their daily tasks- are all linked with the form of voice they experience.  Our work has only just started to explore the antecedents and effects of the two voice forms. 

Please see the following links for more details: 

CIPD’s Guide to group voice channels 

CIPD’s guide to individual voice channels 

CIPD’s practical advice for employers and HR practitioners  

Employee voice helping organisations manage employee relations in new and emerging workspaces. 


Summary and next steps 

For too long, we have assumed that only one voice form- that focused on improving the organization- is the only one that matters.  This research uncovers that there is a neglected voice form – individual voice- which highlights that people have distinct and unique personalities, that they value being listened to, and like to believe that what they say has the potential to effect change, even if this is not directly related to improving practice for the organisation. 

Right back to when we first presented our results at an Engage for Success event held at NBS, well before the pandemic struck, HR and Engagement practitioners have wanted to explore the implications of the insights arising from this research for practice.   

In subsequent discussion with people specialists, including our recent presentation to the Scottish Employment Relations Network, it’s clear that those working in the HR space have wanted to know how they might reflect the notion of individual voice, as well as organisational voice in their policies and practice.  One key factor is supporting line managers as they reward, encourage, develop and assess those who report to them.   

We look forward to sharing further details from our Voice project as they emerge. 

Please get in touch if you are interested in participating in this project and/or if you would like to share good practice from your organisation.  

Professor Helen Shipton: 

Dr Nadia Kougiannou: 



CPWOP News blog 31.07.2020 – Focus on Employee Voice

The UK government recently announced that those who could not work from home were being actively encouraged to return to work. Since then 1000’s of employees have begun that process of returning, with many potentially uncertain about what they might find. The majority of these will be front-line and operational workers who are not able to work from home because they work in factories, construction sites or warehouses amongst other places, the likelihood is that their office-based colleagues will still be able to work from home.

In our research, conducted in partnership with the CIPD on Employee Voice, we found that even before COVID-19 the divides between office and front-line workers were already considerable. We uncovered that the ‘command and control’ structures of many operational roles has led to a “culture of verbal abuse and management structures” which did not allow for employees to raise concerns without fear of reprisals. Being reprimanded could include being shouted at or being provided with a worse task. Frontline staff were also more like to face demanding key performance indicators (KPI’s) throughout their working day. Consideration of these command and control structures during the current crisis may be required because of the potential for increased pressure on individuals to meet KPI’s while also adhering to new policies on social distancing and the wearing of PPE. However, the crisis may also provide an opportunity for pressure in some areas of productivity to be relaxed due to reduced demand and the provision of limited service.

Office-based staff, on the other hand, were more likely to feel confident to speak out and had access to communication channels such as computer systems, which also support access to timely advice and information. Additionally, office-based staff were often managed in ways ‘more likely to elicit voice’. COVID-19 and the phased return to work has the potential to exacerbate these divides, as operational staff are now more likely to be exposed to some of the risks of COVID-19.

These divides are both physical in terms of access to a working area that is ‘safe’ according to social distancing guidelines, but also linked to wider societal divides. Many of these frontline staff returning to work are in lower paid positions compared to their office-based counterparts. In addition to this, the BBC website currently has a ‘how exposed is your job?’ calculator, highlighting the point that not all jobs carry equal risk.

Our research has also revealed that there may be certain industries and organisational cultures that have employee voice that could have important ramifications during the current crisis. One such industry is construction where it is often the case that a ‘masculine’ culture prevails. This type of culture is one that may inhibit the effective wearing of PPE, and the restriction of voice because of a desire not to stand out or be the one that ‘tells’ on a colleague for not wearing their PPE or observing the distancing rules.

In combating these divides, it is vital to ensure that effective internal communication procedures and employee voice protocols are in place which can then help to build trust among employees, minimise or negate any brand reputation damage, and help to manage productivity levels. This also provides an opportunity to let employees speak on behalf of the organisation in counteracting reports which can damage brand reputation. In this sense, good employee voice can allow employees to become spokespeople for the organisation, building upon a feeling of teamwork amongst coming through the crisis together. This communication is vital as work situations become more heavily imbued with senses of fear, confusion, or reluctance. Work life becomes ever more intertwined with considerations of family life and looking after relatives that could be put risk by your return to work. The link between worries at home, work, and for society are highlighted by the recent publication of correspondence from some NHS Trusts, instructing staff not to talk about the shortages of PPE, with guidance on what they should and should not post about on their personal social media with regards to the crisis for fear of damaging the reputation of the Trust, the NHS, or inciting panic in society.

Returning to work in the current situation requires open and honest conversations between management and employees. Achieving a ‘new normal’ requires collaboration with voices from both sides.