The Dangers of Employee Silence

October 6, 2014 Darcy Jacobsen

Employee Silence“No news is good news” is a common, fingers-crossed sentiment in many HR departments.

It isn’t that we aren’t open to hearing from employees. But often we spend so much time running around putting out fires that a little bit of silence can be truly golden. It means things are finally running smoothly.

Or does it?

According to an article published in the latest Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior—employee silence can sometimes be a sign of something much more ominous. Titled “Employee Voice and Silence,” the article says that many leaders assume that silence means the organization is running well and smoothly when the opposite may be true. In organizations where employees are not encouraged to share their feedback, culture and morale may actually be suffering. Silence, says author Elizabeth W. Morrison from the Stern School of Business at NYU, is often dysfunctional,

Morrison defines this as a problem of “employee voice.” “If voice is withheld within an organizational context,” she writes, “both performance and employee morale may suffer, so the consequences may be significant. In addition, there is evidence suggesting that voice is in fact stifled in many organizations and that employees are often very hesitant to engage in voice, particularly when the information could be viewed by the recipient as negative or threatening.”

Employee voice is defined as a willingness to speaking up speak up and offer suggestions, information, or opinions—in an informal way (as opposed to say, through a union.) Employee voice has been defined by organizational psychologists as a form of discretionary, or extra-role, behavior, and therefore implies a certain level of engagement. Employee silence, therefore, is when employees may have feedback or criticisms to share, but feel inhibited from offering them—and would seem by definition to imply a certain lack of engagement, or fear of consequences.

Here’s a chart from that paper showing the variables that can motivate or inhibit employees from speaking up:

Annual Report

According to another 2000 article by Morrison and Frances Milliken in the Academy of Management Review, the consequences of employee silence can be damaging to decision-making and change processes, and can result in three destructive outcomes from employees:

  1. Employees do not feel valued
  2. Employees perceive a lack of control
  3. Employees display cognitive dissonance  (a discrepancy between beliefs and behavior)

So how can you dispel employee silence, and encourage employees to share their thoughts and ideas? Here are five ideas drawn from Morrison’s work to help you increase motivation for employees to share their voices:

  1. Create a group voice climate – According to Morrison and Milliken, studies show that employees value leaders’ decision making procedures more “when those procedures allow for employee input, even when this input does not have much impact on decision outcomes… procedures that allow for employee voice are viewed positively, at least in part, because they signal that employees are valued members of the organization.” Creating a group voice climate, where employees understand that it is not only acceptable, but expected, that they speak up, goes a long way to increasing their feelings of agency and satisfaction. This might be something as simple as implementing peer-to-peer recognition—where employees have an opportunity daily to notice and comment on the work around them—or soliciting input directly by suggestion boxes, feedback forums, expanding the scope of engagement surveys, or even conducting regular employee pulse surveys.
  2. Build trust and psychological safety  – Encouraging ongoing feedback from employees can increase their sense of control. In fact, research on procedural justice shows that expressing opinions and preferences can go a long way toward giving employees a much-needed sense of control over their immediate environment. Another factor here is trust. Seek ways to build employee trust in management and senior leadership. (Check out our recent Workforce Mood Tracker findings on the relationship between work friendships and feelings of trust and company satisfaction.)
  3. Encourage group identification – Often employees will speak up because they believe they can have a positive influence on their group and environment. According to Morrison, managers should “foster higher levels of identification with the common enterprise in order to strengthen employees’ drive to make a positive difference.” The development of real, practicable values, can be a solid way to inculcate this sense of group-led goals and welfare.
  4. Nurture a workplace climate that values honest communication- “There is a natural reluctance to convey negative or potentially threatening information,” says  Morrison, “particularly to individuals in positions of authority or higher status. This means that active efforts need to be taken to counterbalance these inhibiting forces and to ensure that they are not reinforced by negative leadership behaviors, a climate of fear, or a work environment that causes employees to feel disengaged or powerless.” The creation of a more connected, communicative and social workplace can be a great start in establishing this sort of climate.
  5. Encourage the right kind of feedback – While studies show that performance suffers under a high level of silence, there are suggestions that too much input—particularly dissenting voices, can overload decision-making or negatively impact those speaking up. According to Morrison, “employees should recognize that their voice behavior is likely to be more effective and well received if they have established images of themselves as trustworthy and credible and if they are mindful of managing strong negative emotions.” A focus then, on constructive and positive feedback, and providing ways for employees to build and nurture their own social capital (such as social recognition) may help to allay these effects and still enable companies to reap the benefits of an engaged group voice climate.

What are you doing in your organization to encourage employee voices?

The Dangers of Employee Silence
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