Five Beliefs Employees Hold About Leaders That Cause Silence

August 6, 2011

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.

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Comments (14)

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  1. Charlotte says:

    Dr. Simmons,
    I am a loyal reader of your blog, and always appreciate your insight and the work you do for me (and all of us) sharing research.
    I do have questions about your statements:

    “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.”

    And you go on to state about managers “…help them with training but don’t promote them again until they demonstrate that they understand how to encourage employee voice.”

    My questions:
    How does senior management know an employee’s idea was curbed by their manager and therefore that manager needs more training?
    About this you advised “… to make employee voice an expected, measured, and rewarded behavior.”
    This is a huge recommendation that is often championed by firms large and small, but rarely practiced.

    And because of those curbed ideas, how many great ones (or simply good ones) are never heard because of point #3 “Don’t bypass the boss upward”?

    After 40 years as an employee, I have frequently encountered managers who are entrenched in ‘the way things have always been done’. When I presented ideas for improvement or change, I have too often been shut down – even when it clearly (presented with all the metrics) benefits the firm.

    On the occasions when I have taken the idea to my manager’s supervisor (after being rejected by my manager); my idea accepted, utilized and rewarded – I paid dearly for going around my boss.
    Is there a win here for an employee?

    As a manager, I live by my experience: I know that the best ideas come from those who actually do the work, use the product or face the customer every day.
    Improvement is essential to find out questions like: Why is the process too cumbersome? What additional features would the client like? Why is the customer dissatisfied?
    Productivity, product improvement, customer satisfaction and employee retention rise with clear – and unencumbered – communication.

    Training managers to work with their employees to achieve their highest performance and contribution to a firm is a great idea. However, I have seldom seen it in action.
    When I hit that big wall, after all these years, it’s either put up or find another job.
    A firm that does not evaluate employee input is destined to maintain ‘old ways’ until it becomes irrelevant – and the ‘new ideas’ walk out the door to find a better opportunity elsewhere.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Excellent thoughts, Charlotte. I hope others will read your comment and share their opinions directly with you. Much of the example you give here is silence caused by poor managerial behavior, not employee beliefs. Silence is a behavior, both by employees that exhibit it and the managers that sometimes cause it. As a behavior, it can be described, developed, measured, and rewarded. Any company that really values employee voice will make this behavior a tracked priority. As you know, lip service just won’t cut it. Thanks for sharing!! Bret

  2. Saichi says:

    Bret – insightful – as usual!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Saichi! Almost time for the silvers to be running in Valdez! Hope you had another good season of reds. Thanks! Bret

  3. Daniel Buhr says:

    Thank you, Bret, great post. This issue is so critical in regards to people finding fulfillment in the workplace.
    A key factor in each of the five beliefs is the mistaken idea that leadership and management are the same. The underlings hesitate to speak up and work toward positive change because they think they’re not in a position to do so. They falsely assume they can’t lead simply they’re not in management. And on the other side the overlings balk when anyone steps up and speaks out because they see it as a threat. They falsely assume if someone is trying to lead they’re after their position.
    “Leadership is no longer about your position. It’s now more about your passion for excellence and making a difference. You can lead without a title” Robin Sharma

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Daniel. Love the quote you shared. I think it’s mainly about beliefs about power and authority – how you are supposed to behave when you think you don’t have any, how you are supposed to behave towards those that have it, how you are supposed to behave when you have it. Thanks! Bret

  4. Mei-Wan Chan says:

    I am a great believer in ‘The message is right, is the messager the right one?’ I try my best to fit the message with the proper messager, so that it will get proper attention from the powers above. I am a new retiree, after working full-time for 37 years, 30 years in senior positions. Only until recently, I have been confident that good ideas from anyone will definitely get the proper attention they deserve. Now I believe personal chemistry is important as to whether your ideas will be well received by the other party.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Mei-Wan. I love your saying. I often have to tell my colleagues that I’m willing to be the one to go say something, but it might be better if it came from someone else. Great insight. Thanks for sharing. Bret

  5. Dan says:

    Hi Bret

    It’s great to read this post as it shows the continuing work in an area that’s always been vital to me. I have to say, I don’t think much has shifted from the nineties, when Kathleen Ryan and I wrote Driving Fear Out of the Workplace and The Courageous Messenger. The dynamics are still there. We found in our field studies that the two major factors in people not speaking up were fear of repercussions — the most prominent of which was being negatively labelled (e.g., troublemaker or not a team player) and a sense of futility — that speaking up would simply do no good.

    In addition to the suggestions you’ve made about changes to systems, I would add that it’s the quality of human connection between a manager and employee at any organizational level that cuts through the beliefs and cultural patterns that inhibit communication. That does, to my mind, still place the “authority figure” in a critical leadership role, taking the first steps and being persistent in addressing the norms that keep people quiet. Not the only leadership role, mind you, but a critical one.

    There are many aspects to the problem, but from my own experience and the work that Kathleen and I put into those books, it’s clear to me that all of us really need to reach out to one another, take the risk to open up issues with one another in ways that demonstrate a commitment to both truth and to care for one another. In essence, we need to be able to stand outside the roles and connect as human beings — where often the breakthrough is learning to talk to each other about each other directly. I don’t say this with any illusion that such work is easy. It certainly requires a full-scale understanding of the cultural dynamics of silence and courage to help mitigate taking it all too personally — on both the side of the messenger and the side of the receiver. But it is possible, and I have seen remarkable instances of leaders who by their presence, warmth, honesty and sense of welcome for people and their feelings and perceptions, created enough of what Amy Edmondson has called “psychological safety” to change the game. This often includes, again from my experience, actively welcoming and responding to feedback given to the leader. I have also seen people speak up in ways that create understanding rather than enmity, even when there are vast power differences. This often includes understanding the intentions of the receiver, understanding that person’s own sense of integrity.

    I suspect we will not “solve” the problem of silence so much as continue to understand it better, in the process developing a kind of savvy compassion and self-knowledge. For when have we, because of our own defensiveness, walled out information from others that could have been useful, proving the belief that repercussions and futility are the consequence of speaking up? And when have we chosen to “pick our battles” as a way to avoid a challenging dialogue where we face the test of our own authenticity?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I own the driving fear out of the workplace, Dan! It was key to Deming’s philosophy. This is a brilliant comment you provided. I hope people will find it and take the time to read it. I LOVE this: “it’s clear to me that all of us really need to reach out to one another, take the risk to open up issues with one another in ways that demonstrate a commitment to both truth and to care for one another. In essence, we need to be able to stand outside the roles and connect as human beings — where often the breakthrough is learning to talk to each other about each other directly.” Thanks!!! Bret

  6. Lisa Jackson says:

    Bret, I really resonated with this article.

    If I were to boil down the one thing that every culture needs more of in order to be competitive, faster-moving and adaptive, it’s the ability to “tell the truth without blame and judgment.” Even executives at the very top struggle with this.

    Since our society’s culture has not really taught – in fact has de-valued – this skill in our families or schools, it’s no wonder it doesn’t permeate our workplaces. As your article shows, it is a mindset that exists on both sides of the equation, ie, in what it means to be the boss AND in the inherent fear of what it means to speak up as an employee.

    One practice we’ve worked to embed in our culture change process is one of “structured collaboration” – ie, build a meeting structure for providing input so that it becomes a habit and expectation. You start small – maybe everyone states briefly one thing I am “proud of” this week. The next week it’s “one challenge I faced this week.” The next week it’s “One small idea that popped up for me this week.” The facilitator sets it up “round robin” style so everyone is required to speak up, and that starts to make it a habitual and safe way to cultivate the employee voice. We also use storyboarding on “the wall” a lot to provide a bit of distance – to write on a sticky note and then discuss that idea somehow feels safer, and also you can see that others are thinking the same thing as you.

    There are many, many ways to accomplish “structured collaboration” – a client we worked with is beginning to post video vignettes on their intranet of “proud moments that have changed our culture” – people who have done tiny little things, like avoid email on weekends, have been called out publicly and rewarded for their voice.

    The key is to eradicating fear in my experience – in addition to ensuring leaders don’t perpetuate it – is to make it completely safe and part of the DNA of the organization to speak up – NOT via email but through more face-to-face conversation.

    Great dialogue, thanks Bret!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Lisa! Making is safe to speak up is so very important. Some organizations have this rhetoric, few have it as a true value and operating imperative. It’s easier said than done, but so critical. Thanks for sharing these excellent thoughts! Bret

  7. Scott Hunter says:

    I really appreciate the points you made in your article. Most company owners, presidents and other C-level executives probably expect their employees to come to work, give it all they have, appreciate they have a job and a paycheck and really are not much concerned at all about what happens at the manager level and whether or not their employees are happy. Some leaders need to get to work looking to see what’s exactly going on within their organization.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Scott. I loathe the “your lucky just to have a job attitude.” What goes around will certain come around with that one. Thanks! Bret