5 reasons employees keep their mouths shut

Study reveals why workers censor their opinions. Job safety, anyone?

There is a difference between employees not speaking up at work because they don’t have anything to say and not speaking up because they fear the consequences.

Managerial behavior can signal employees that it is unwise to speak up. But even when managers are not to blame, some employees will still be reticent to share information they believe is risky.

“The Academy of Management Journal” recently published an extremely well done study by James Detert and Amy Edmondson that examined employee beliefs about when and why speaking up at work is risky or inappropriate.

The authors found that “sometimes unwillingness to speak up is not experienced as intense, discrete fear but rather as a sense of inappropriateness; voice seems risky because it seems wrong or out of place.”

Through a series of four studies, they identified the following five beliefs employees can hold about authority figures that can cause them to exhibit self-protective silence:

1. Negative career consequences of voice. If you want advancement opportunities in today’s world, you have to be careful about pointing out areas of improvement to your boss.

2. Don’t embarrass the boss in public. You should always pass your ideas for improvement by the boss in private first before you speak up publicly at work.

3. Don’t bypass the boss upward. Loyalty to your boss means you don’t speak up about problems in front of your boss.

4. Need solid data or solutions (to speak up). Unless you have clear solutions, you shouldn’t speak up about problems.

5. Presumed target identification: It’s not good to question the way things are done. Those who developed the routines will likely take it personally.

This research is important because it shows that the boss is not always to blame for organizational silence. Individuals arrive at work with a set of implicit theories they learned based on past direct and vicarious experiences.

The authors conclude “managers appear saddled not only by their own actual behaviors inhibiting voice but also by subordinate beliefs about managers.”

If you want employee voice to become an operational priority, you should make changes to your selection, training, evaluation, reward and promotion systems. My advice is to make employee voice an expected, measured and rewarded behavior.

Hire employees who can demonstrate a record of coming forward with suggestions and solutions at their previous jobs. Never promote an employee to a management position if they didn’t attempt to partner with managers to improve their job.

If you discover you have a manager who stifles employee voice, help them with training but don’t promote them again until they demonstrate they can encourage employee voice.

If an employee believes in the safety of silence, engage them in behavior at work that challenges those beliefs. Otherwise, “it is unlikely that they will revise, set aside, or develop new implicit theories related to speaking up,” the authors conclude.

Bret L. Simmons, Ph.D., is an associate professor of management at The University of Nevada, Reno. He writes about leadership and social business at his blog, where a version of this article originally ran.

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