As every company knows, employees are its greatest resource. It’s more than a shame, then, that many workers are either not encouraged or afraid to speak up and communicate ideas at work. Employers are losing valuable knowledge and experience, and their companies are weaker for that loss.
In a recent working paper, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and Penn State professor James Detert explored the challenges employees face speaking up to internal authorities. Their research focused on behavior in large, multinational corporations, but the lessons learned can apply to smaller enterprises as well.
In this e-mail interview, Edmondson and Detert discuss their research and how managers can create environments that encourage and support “upward voice.” Their paper is called “Latent Voice Episodes: The Situation-Specific Nature of Speaking up at Work.”
Sarah Jane Gilbert: Can you explain the meanings of latent voice episodes and upward voice?
Amy Edmondson and James Detert: Latent voice episodes describe those moments at work when someone considers speaking up about an issue, problem, or even an improvement opportunity. We are interested in how people think about speaking up. What “sensemaking” takes place in these episodes? We call the episodes “latent” because they are potential communications that may or may not in fact occur. Understanding the factors that encourage or inhibit people speaking up at work with the relevant ideas and concerns they have is the focus of this research.
Upward voice refers to communications directed to someone higher in the organizational hierarchy with the perceived power or authority to take action on the problem or suggestion. This is what we mean by speaking up. This is also why leaders are inherently important to the improvement-oriented voice process—because leaders are the targets of voice. If they send signals that they are open, interested, and willing to act on subordinate voice, it is logical to expect that subordinates’ motivation to do so will be increased; conversely, where subordinates perceive leaders’ behavior to indicate it is either unsafe or futile to speak up, they are less likely to do so.
Q: What factors determine whether or not an employee feels safe using their upward voice?
A: Our own and others’ research have identified two types of factors that lead people to feel more or less safe speaking up: individual differences and contextual factors.
Individual differences include personality dispositions such as one’s level of extraversion or proactivity, or one’s developed skills such as how to communicate in ways that don’t evoke defensiveness, and also personal concerns about job security and/or mobility. These factors tend to be seen as applying across situations. For example, a person with greater communication skill might be more likely to speak up despite an unfavorable context.
In contrast, context refers to organizational factors, outside the individual, that provide cues about how voice is likely to be received. Leader behavior is one such contextual cue. Aspects of organizational culture and structure also matter, such as the degree to which an organization is hierarchical or egalitarian, or has explicit mechanisms for inviting upward input (e.g., suggestion boxes, regularly-scheduled meetings, surveys).
Our research adds the finding that specific features of the situation in which voice is contemplated, such as the size and formality of the venue and level of hierarchy present, also matter, as does the degree of demographic similarity between the speaker and the intended target of his or her communication.
Q: Why are we so hesitant to take the risk and speak up?
A: We think that fear of speaking up—and therefore a tendency toward silence—is over-determined by both the general nature of humans and the specific realities of the modern economy. Even from an evolutionary point of view, it seems we’re all hard-wired to overestimate rather than underestimate certain types of risk—it was better (for survival) to “flee” too often from threats that weren’t really there than to not flee the one time there was a significant risk. So, we’ve inherited emotional and cognitive mechanisms that motivate us to avoid perceived risks to our psychological and material well-being.
Turning to the modern economy, most of us depend on hierarchical organizations and their agents (i.e., bosses) to meet many of our basic needs for economic support and human relationships. Thus, fear of offending those above us is both natural and widespread. One way we can get in trouble with those above us is to speak up in ways perceived as challenging of authority or critical of cherished programs. Given the exaggerated and real reasons to fear offending authorities, it isn’t surprising that people clam up when the signals seem unfavorable.
Q: How hard is it to change a culture so that employees feel more comfortable expressing their opinions?
A: How do you change a culture of fear? It’s difficult! Despite some well-intentioned efforts, we haven’t yet worked with an organization that has fully transformed itself from one of fear to one in which most employees would rate the organization as open or conducive to speaking up. At the same time, we’ve been in many organizations that have pockets—groups, departments, work units—that are palpably open and actively engaged in discussion, debate, experimentation, or improvement.
Other companies we know, in which voice or other learning behaviors are relatively widespread, were founded on principles of respect for all employees, deep commitment to openness, etc. But changing a culture so that people believe speaking up is expected and desired is likely to require some fairly drastic indications of commitment to change. This would include placing individuals who are known to be open in key roles, illustrating in visible ways that voice is celebrated rather than punished, and making fundamental changes to how people get evaluated and rewarded.
For example, in one organization we worked with, many employees suggested that (a) “openness to input from below” should become a key component of each leader’s 360-degree performance evaluation and (b) a cut-off score be set for this component, such that those below the threshold could not be promoted. This would have been a fairly radical change in this company, where technical excellence was seen as the primary basis for promotion. Although senior management did not act on this suggestion, which would have been, admittedly, very difficult in their well-established culture, it points in the right direction.
It’s worth remembering that this is not about being “nice” or creating a “nice” workplace. In fact, those organizations where voice is more natural and welcome can be pretty tough places in the sense that people are direct! Not all news is good news! But people also have learned to expect the good and the bad, and know how to process it. You might be thinking at this point, given how difficult it is and given that it’s not necessarily going to be fun, why bother? Our response is that no news is not good news, from the point of view of senior management, or even bosses all the way down. Managers need to hear from the people in the organization who are closest to the work, closest to the customers—that is, from those who are in the best position to recognize problems and have new ideas.
Q: What kind of work environment would encourage employees to feel free to express their opinions? How can managers encourage and create such a setting?
A: Our own and others’ research have shown that two beliefs are essential preconditions for the free expression of upward voice: first, the belief that one is not putting oneself at significant risk of personal harm (e.g., embarrassment, loss of material resources) and second, the belief that one is not wasting one’s time in speaking up. In short, voice must be seen as both safe and worthwhile. Anything an organization can do to prevent the widespread belief that voice is unsafe or not worth your time is likely to increase the upward communication flow.
Environments where risk-taking is championed and visibly rewarded rather than punished, where leaders have good personal as well as technical skills, and where factors that create psychological distance between bosses and subordinates are minimized are likely to be better places for speaking up. Yet, even in such environments people have to speak up to specific individuals, and our research suggests that people can be afraid to speak up to their boss even when the overall organizational climate appears conducive to voice. This makes facilitating voice every manager’s job. Expecting a general suggestion system or a semi-annual feedback meeting to take care of the “voice problem” is almost certainly a mistake.
Ultimately, every manager needs to work at being open and accessible and taking action on ideas or reporting back on why action can’t or won’t be taken. These are behavioral skills that all of us can continue to practice and improve. These don’t need to be grand, highly contrived actions. Some of the people we’ve interviewed pointed to immense value in leaders simply stopping by in the cafeteria, or pulling them aside in the hallway for a couple minutes and really listening. This sounds a lot like “management by walking around” but it seems to be worth a lot in this regard.
Q: Your study was conducted primarily within large multinational companies. Do you think you might have uncovered different results in smaller firms?
A: There are certainly some contextual factors—cultural and structural—that contribute to making larger companies difficult places for speaking up. Size itself is one such factor: Some of our colleagues have shown that people speak up more in smaller groups and in settings that are more intimate. In smaller companies, where everyone knows and regularly interacts with top managers, there is less likelihood employees will be silent based on lack of established relationship or lack of accessibility. Then, throw in the physical distance between sites and culture differences that multinational corporations have to deal with and, yes, creating a positive setting for voice can be a serious challenge.
However, bosses can be arrogant or busy or lacking in interpersonal skills in any size or type of company. Similarly, senior management in any type of firm can consciously or unconsciously fail to utilize the formal mechanisms that facilitate speaking up. In fact, much of our research has been conducted in settings that don’t fit the descriptions of “large” or “multinational” and yet we have consistently identified the same types of individual differences and contextual factors (especially leader behavior) as key influences on speaking up by subordinates.
Q: What led you to conduct this study? Did anything in your research surprise you?
A: The specific study that led to our coining the term “latent voice episode” was initiated when a particular organization approached us to better understand why some employees would speak up and others would instead withhold potentially valuable information. In other studies, too, our partnerships with organizations have been based on a mutual desire to better understand the phenomena of upward voice, leadership behavior, and organizational learning processes and the organizations’ desire to improve its capacity to learn and prosper by better utilizing the knowledge and ideas of its people. Because the potential value of “getting more ideas on the table” is so intuitively appealing, it has been relatively easy to convince organizations that this research is worth sponsoring.
Perhaps most surprising to us has been the degree to which fear appears to be a feature of modern work life. Whenever we talk with others about this work, such as on airplanes with strangers, we get a similar response—”Oh yeah, I can relate to wanting to speak up but biting my tongue.” It’s really a shame how much apparently untapped knowledge there is out there and how much pain and frustration results from this silence. That, too, has been somewhat surprising—that people are genuinely hurt and frustrated about their silence. This suggests that employees aren’t failing to provide ideas or input because they’ve “checked out” and just don’t care, but because of fear.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: We are currently working on a number of different studies involving leadership, voice, and organizational learning. In one study, we are investigating some of the findings from the latent voice episode study in a very different context—the low-wage, high-turnover service sector. In another, we’re investigating the effects of psychological safety on process improvement in a number of hospital intensive care units. One future research goal is to study multiple voice episodes for a given individual, so we can disentangle what part of speaking up is person-specific and what part is dependent on the nature of the comment, the setting where the comment has to be made, or the target of the comment.
About the author
Sarah Jane Gilbert