Silence in the Workplace

Have you ever wondered why people stay silent in a work situation, even when they know that the organization is headed in a wrong direction, or when they have been asked to help improve a process or activity at work?

New research from James Detert and Amy Edmondson suggest that we stay silent because with have taken for granted beliefs that speaking up at work is risky or inappropriate.  In a series of studies, they found that people develop beliefs (or implicit theories) of the appropriateness of speaking out throughout a lifetime of experiences.  They found that if the environment sent certain cues, these beliefs would rise to the surface, encouraging silence. They found this to be true, even when the person’s current boss did not display any leader behaviours that would suggest that it was inappropriate or risky to speak out.

They found five basic theories that unconsciously apply when deciding to be silent:

  1. That the boss or executives have some personal attachment to the process, routine or product that is being critiqued.
  2. That the person speaking needs solid evidence and suggestions for change before speaking up.
  3. That it is inappropriate to speak up to higher-ups when the boss is present, because you’ve bypassed the boss, undermining his or her credibility
  4. That you don’t embarrass the boss in public, but you should approach them privately first.
  5. That there are negative career consequences for speaking out.

The research suggests that these “implicit beliefs” have an impact on our silence beyond the situation, the personal attributes of the individual and beyond the behaviours of the boss.  While boss behaviour does have an impact on follower behaviour, the follower’s accumulated beliefs over time may cause them to be silent.

So as a leader or boss who genuinely wants to get honest input, what should you do?  Since there is no research, the best that I can do is give some best guesses.

First, make the implicit beliefs explicit.  Work with your employees to get them to express their concerns about speaking out.  This will help them recognize when these concerns are legitimate, and when they are not based in reality. Second, role model your own behaviour, speaking out when necessary. Third, when someone does speak out, engage with them, recognize them in front of others.  Finally, work with your reports to identify a safe process to voice concerns, and then follow that process.

The next time you decide on silence, ask yourself if the risks you perceive are real, or if you are relying on your implicit beliefs about voice. Those who give voice are able to lead.  Those who don’t will never be heard.

Source: Detert, James and Edmondson, Amy. “Implicit Voice Theories: Taken-for-Granted Rules of self-censorship at Work”.  The Academy of Management Journal. Vol 54, No. 3. June 2011. p 461 – 488.


3 replies »

  1. I often have troubles in my previous job when I spoke my mind openly and that’s why i hardly never break the silence nowadays. I know it is not good but I can’t help it.

  2. Let me sum this up for you very succinctly…….”job security”. Which relates directly back to all the different nuances of “power” in the workplace.

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