There is a difference between employees not speaking up at work because they don’t have anything to say about a specific issue and not speaking up because they fear the consequences of expressing their ideas. Managerial behavior can signal employees that it is unwise to speak up. But even when managers hold positive beliefs about the value of employee voice that manifest in encouraging behavior towards employees, 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 (full citation below) that examined employee taken-for-granted 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.” (p. 481).
Through a series of four separate 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: e.g. if you want advancement opportunities in today’s world, you have to be careful about pointing out needs for improvement to those in charge
2. Don’t embarrass the boss in public: e.g. 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: e.g. loyalty to your boss means you don’t speak up about problems in front of his or her boss.
4. Need solid data or solutions (to speak up): e.g. unless you have clear solutions, you shouldn’t speak up about problems.
5. Presumed target identification: e.g. it is not good to question the way things are done because those who have developed the routines are likely to 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 about work and authority figures that they learned via 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.” (p. 484).
If you want employee voice to become an operational priority, you are going to have to 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 that can demonstrate a proven record of coming forward with specific suggestions and solutions at their previous jobs. Never promote to a position of management an employee that in addition to mastering the performance expectations of their assigned job did not also attempt to partner with managers to improve that job.
If you discover you have a manager that stifles employee voice, help them with training but don’t promote them again until they demonstrate that they understand how to encourage employee voice. If you discover you’ve hired an employee with strong self-protective beliefs about the safety of silence, help them engage in behavior at work that directly and specifically challenges those beliefs; otherwise, “it is unlikely that they will revise, set aside, or develop new implicit theories related to speaking up.” (p. 465).
Do you have any suggestions? Please share them in the comment section below!
Full citation: Detert, J.R. & Edmondson, A.C. (2011). Implicit Voice Theories: Taken-For-Granted Rules of Self-Censorship at Work. Academy of Management Journal, 54 (3): 461-488.