RESEARCH
  • Managing people

Why Don’t Employees Speak-Up?

In a new study, NYU Stern Professors Elizabeth Morrison and Kelly See, along with Caitlin Pan of SIM University, examine why employees often withhold important suggestions and concerns, and find that a sense of powerlessness plays a key role.



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The leadership and performance of organizations is greatly enhanced by open conversations. Unfortunately too many employees tend to stay schtum.

Positive employee engagement calls for open lines of communication and a two-way ‘line of site’ between the senior leadership in the organization and the front-line staff. Good communication and open conversations engender trust and build healthy corporate cultures. Great in theory, but it is surprisingly common for employees to remain silent about important issues that they encounter at work. Which can have serious performance implications and in extreme cases lead to major corporate scandals.

Managers at BP before the Gulf oil rig tragedy, at the BBC before the Saville revelations, at Barclays before the Libor rate fixing fraud, at Enron, at News International, etc. appear to have held back information that could have averted disaster. Equally at another level employees with good suggestions about minor improvements to working practices could if they spoke-up greatly benefit company performance. 

The authors conducted three studies – a laboratory experiment, a survey study of healthcare workers and a survey study of employees working across a wide range of industries. Key findings and conclusions include:

  • Employees often choose to withhold information about important issues or concerns at work, which can cause problems to persist and escalate.
  • A key factor contributing to silence is an employee’s perception that he or she has little power in relation to others at work.
  • This effect of feeling powerless is significantly reduced, however, when the employee regards his or her supervisor as open to input.
  • Supervisors can foster a work environment that reduces feelings of powerlessness among employees, and convey genuine openness to input, thereby encouraging more upward communication.

“The consequences of employees not speaking up when they are aware of serious problems can be disastrous,” explained the authors, “as seen in many salient examples such as the implosion of Enron, the crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia, the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State and the faulty ignition switch debacle at GM. In each case, there were people who were aware of serious issues or problems, but they failed to speak up and the situation escalated.” The goal of this study, explained the authors, was to “better understand why this occurs and how this tendency to withhold important information can be mitigated, so that hopefully more problems and errors in the workplace can be averted.”

This study aimed to expand current theoretical understanding of why employees often remain silent, and of situational factors that can lessen this tendency. The authors argue that an employee's personal sense that he or she is lacking in power in relation to others at work is a key factor contributing to the decision to remain silent, but that this effect is moderated by perceived target openness. Their findings suggest that, although silence is indeed rooted in the psychological experience of powerlessness, perceived target openness mitigates this relationship, encouraging employee to speak up when they would not otherwise do so.

Further Information

The article, ‘An Approach-Inhibition Model of Employee Silence: The Joint Effects of Personal Sense of Power and Target Openness’ is forthcoming in Personnel Psychology 

About Professor Elizabeth Morrison




 
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