How to develop a pipeline of engaged young leaders

When young people feel empowered, they’re more likely to contribute unique thoughts and viewpoints, leading to innovation and increased engagement. Talent leaders must convince their youngest members that speaking up is worth the risk.

Diversity of thought is a cornerstone of a strong, thoughtful and inclusive organization. However, when young professionals consider speaking up in the workplace, the cons associated with taking the risk may outweigh the pros of contributing their ideas and opinions.  

Even for the most confident employees, challenging traditional ways of doing things can feel risky. After all, their reputation could take a hit if they share what’s perceived as an ill-conceived or uninformed opinion. Or they may worry about challenging the perspective of team members in more senior positions. 

These are all good reasons for feeling hesitant to contribute. Unfortunately, remaining silent leads to lost ideas and perspectives that could be good for business. Here’s what we’ve discovered from our research on emerging leaders: Diversity of thought is a cornerstone of strong, thoughtful and inclusive organizations. When young people feel empowered, they’re more likely to contribute unique thoughts and viewpoints, leading to innovation and increased engagement.

So how can talent leaders convince their youngest members that speaking up is worth the risk? And once they do, how can they show them that their voices are heard and their opinions matter?

Why employees want to speak up — and how to foster a safe space for ideas

In the workplace, people typically speak up for three reasons:

  • A line has been crossed, and they feel an obligation to report it.  
  • They have suggestions for how to make their work better or more efficient. 
  • They have ideas for impacting broader organizational issues. 

In each case, psychological safety must be present before employees are willing to share their opinions. At the Center for Creative Leadership, we define psychological safety as the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for raising ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. 

It may seem obvious, but the first way to create psychological safety at work is to communicate to your organization what psychological safety is and why it matters. When young employees feel free to share their opinions, they also feel a sense of belonging — that they are a part of their organizations’ success and their contributions make a difference. 

Leaders should model behaviors such as curiosity, candor and truth-telling. When someone is brave enough to speak up, be open-minded and compassionate. Make risk-taking a part of your culture by encouraging senior leaders to share their own stories of “failing forward.” Ask open-ended questions that invite dialogue and then listen intently to the responses. By practicing the behaviors you want others to adopt, and rewarding those behaviors by being receptive to input, you can help solidify a culture of psychological safety within your organization. 

Message received: Tips for listening and learning

Nurturing psychological safety lays the groundwork for employees to speak up. But once they do, are your senior leaders prepared to listen? 

Within your organization, there are steps you can take to create space for listening and learning. Consider the following:

  • Organize a formal, two-way mentorship program. In traditional mentoring relationships, an experienced leader nurtures the professional development of a less-experienced colleague. In two-way mentoring or reverse mentoring, the mentor is intentional about garnering information that allows them to tap into a broader perspective of the organization. 
  • Leverage employee resource groups. Some employees will feel more comfortable voicing their thoughts and opinions with peers who have shared social identities or life experiences. Create space for employee resource groups to gather (virtually, in person or in a hybrid workforce situation) and have representatives from each group join specified executive team meetings to surface challenges or opportunities that may have been raised. 
  • Incorporate feedback into meeting culture. Start meetings by asking team members to share a win for the week, a challenge they may have faced or something they’d like to change. 
  • Promote knowledge-sharing across the organization. At company-wide meetings, set aside time to rotate speakers of varying seniority levels representing different departments throughout the organization. These speakers can share learnings and ideas that could benefit the broader organization. 
  • Use tools to collect anonymous employee feedback. Employees may not feel comfortable speaking up in front of their team members, but if they know their feedback is valued, they’re more likely to share it anonymously. Consider tools such as TinyPulse or Poll EveryWhere.

Focus on the follow-through

Regardless of the space you create, think it through before implementing any formal policies. Listening and learning opportunities are only effective when senior leaders listen actively and intently and follow-up on their commitments. 

That doesn’t mean organizations should grant every desire or agree with every stance. Productive conflict is part of the process. But when managed, these conflicts indicate that employees feel comfortable speaking up. 

At the end of the day, don’t forget to express gratitude, which also adds to psychological safety by reinforcing team members’ sense of self. Maybe an employee had a great idea at a roundtable that led to gains in employee engagement. Start your meeting by recognizing that input. In an environment where the cons of speaking up often outweigh the pros, this is your opportunity to tip the scale in your favor.