When Silence is NOT Golden

For organizations to operate effectively, especially in challenging times, management must enable the free flow of information in all directions. Yet employees often are unwilling to speak up about concerns or ideas (positive and negative) that would impact this effectiveness. Results of one study¹ show that 74% of the issues for which respondents chose not to speak up had to do with improvements vs. perceived injustices. The issues identified ranged from relatively minor to those that could result in substantial savings or increased revenue. The authors label situations in which employees choose not to speak up because they believe doing so will result in negative consequences for them as “risky voice opportunities.”

Why do employees view speaking up as risky? Reasons include the belief that the information would upset superiors; personal experience with negative behaviors by bosses (e.g., angry outbursts, demeaning comments) or stories about such behaviors; and a generic fear of speaking to management. Behaviors that employees perceive as most risky are those that would require their superiors to make specific changes in their own behavior, while ideas that do not appear to require those superiors to “give up” anything are seen as least risky. Individuals who perceive they have few, if any, job alternatives are unlikely to take the risk of speaking up. Employees who do speak up tend to be those who are “protected” by a higher level manager, who belong to a union or other collective group, or who believe their high performance will shield them from negative personal outcomes.

The bottom line for most employees is this: positive outcomes of speaking up, if any, are delayed and accrue to the organization, while negative outcomes are immediate and individual. Given those choices, is it any wonder that so many employees choose silence?

Here are five things organizations can do to decrease the perceived risk of speaking up:

  1. Educate managers and supervisors about the consequences of their negative behaviors.
  2. Hold managers accountable for their behaviors.
  3. Create a workplace climate in which a designated level of risk is acceptable.
  4. Create positive, immediate outcomes for those do speak up by rewarding and/or recognizing that behavior.
  5. Create communication processes that reduce the risk of negative individual outcomes.

Remember that people trust what they see rather than what they hear. Thus for employees to move away from a climate of silence into productive and safe dialogue, the organization’s leaders consistently must act in ways that demonstrate they will receive all feedback positively and that they will consider it seriously.

¹Detert, J.R. & Edmondson, A.C. (2005). No exit, no voice: The bind of risky voice opportunities in organizations. Academy of Management Proceedings.

Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients optimize business results by aligning people, programs, and processes with organizational goals. Pat can show you how to apply relevant research findings in practical ways to create immediate results in your organization. Contact us today to see how we can help you make a difference!

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