REUTERS/Carlos Barria

As General Motors tries to recover from the ignition switch failure linked to the recall of more than 2 million cars, 13 deaths and Congressional hearings for its new CEO, the company announced a new effort on Thursday to get its employees to speak up about potential safety issues.

The "Speak Up for Safety" program is "intended to remove perceived and real barriers to candid conversations between employees and their leaders," the announcement said. While the company mentioned that more details would be forthcoming within the next 30 days, it did share two important facets of the program. First, it said workers will be recognized for contributing ideas; it also said safety higher-ups will be held accountable for taking action on employees' ideas in a timely fashion. (When reached for further comment about the program, GM spokesman Greg Martin said "as we go along, we'll be open to other things that can engender trust and encouragement among the workforce to raise safety issues.")

Those first two features are essential if GM wants to avoid the all too frequent fate of the fruitless employee suggestion box — no one gets rewarded for the ideas, so everyone feels it's either unsafe or pointless to speak up. Moreover, the ideas seem to go into a black hole, never to be heard from or acted on again. So to get employees truly feeling safe about speaking up, GM will need to do more, say some academics who research what makes employees willing to report bad news.

Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School who has long studied safety cultures and how organizations learn from failure, says it's important for GM to go beyond asking people to be brave and speak up. The company also needs to reframe problems and failures as inevitable, rather than exceptional.

"You can't take it for granted that everyone in the organization understands that," Edmondson says. What needs to be communicated is that things will go wrong. "It's not because people screw up, but because of the immense complexity of what we do. The phenomenal number of interacting parts, interacting people and continuing changes in technology mean that we will always have failures, full stop."

When managers do that, she says, they reframe the discussion so that it's no longer about whistleblowing, which helps to take the stigma away. "It's just part and parcel of work in the modern world. Those who are bright enough and energetic enough will be those who see it."

In addition, GM will need to make sure it has a way of really managing the suggestions once they come rolling in. Ethan Burris, a management professor at the University of Texas at Austin, studies what makes people call attention to issues in organizations and how managers respond when they do. He says it's one thing to hold the safety group accountable for following through on ideas; it's quite another to have a systematic and rigorous way of handling what could be a flood of ideas.

"They're going to start hearing about a range of issues — some that are low-cost and easy to fix, some that are more complex and more costly," he says, such as changes to the manufacturing process rather than simply to a single part. "They'll need a system for sorting through and prioritizing the ideas" in order to avoid the paralysis, or differing priorities, that can come when there are too many of them. 

For instance, Burris cites recent unpublished research in which he and his collaborators asked employees at 11 financial companies to submit ideas for improving their organizations. After receiving 3000 ideas, they asked the top three to five managers at each firm to rate the ideas for novelty, feasibility and value. "The amazing thing was there was a huge disagreement among the top managers," he says. "These are people who interact with each other all the time about strategy, but there was widespread disagreement about what was a good idea and what wasn't."

The danger when that happens, Burris says, is that the ideas that actually do get the nod can also be the most trivial. "The lowest common denominator ideas — the ones that don't piss anyone off — are the ones that get implemented," he says. "Those are not necessarily the ones that are most valuable."

Finally, Robert Bies, a Georgetown University management professor who has studied what keeps employees from delivering bad news, says that what matters is how people are recognized for suggesting safety problems. For one, employees should be recognized in groups, rather than alone. "Make it a hall of fame. Call out many people together," he says. "Employees have to see that it's a collective group of people, and not just isolated individual whistleblowers. That's when people begin to see that it's an acceptable behavior." He also suggests they promote people who have reported valuable safety problems as a way of showing that it's becoming part of the culture.

Culture, of course, is what must really change to make sure employees speak up and feel like they're heard. A safety program helps, but it can't just be a program — at GM or elsewhere. That means making safety a topic at every meeting, Bies says, not just those of the safety group. It means leaders need to examine their calendars to see how much of their time on a day-to-day basis goes toward safety issues, rather than other priorities. And it means training employees in the politics they'll inevitably face when they report bad news, while training leaders to get better at listening, he says. "It has to become 'this is the way we do things around here.' "

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