The disturbing significance of employee silence

| March 19, 2017

Employee silence can mask an array of significant workplace problems, according to a recent study published in Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior. Surmising that all is well — just because all is quiet — can be a dangerous assumption on the part of supervisors and organizational leaders. In reality, “both performance and employee morale may suffer” as a result of leaders’ failure to understand their employees’ silence.

What constitutes employee silence? It isn’t merely a lack of speech. Silence in the workplace context is defined as when an employee does not share concerns, suggestions, points of view or other information that might be helpful or relevant. In other words, it’s 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,” explains management firm Globoforce.

The problem of silence is a prevalent one: Employees at every level are aware of problems, inefficient systems, inappropriate behavior or actions, and positive opportunities for growth, yet they don’t always address these concerns and suggestions with someone in a position to take action. Simply put, employees don’t use their voice.

To clarify, employee voice is an “informal” and “discretionary communication by an employee of ideas, suggestions, concerns, information about problems, or opinions about work-related issues” to a higher-up or other employee able to take positive action about the communicating employees’ ideas and concerns. Having a voice, and using it, requires employees to be engaged in their work; conversely, refraining from offering an opinion or idea suggests that employees are afraid of the consequences or feel inhibited.

Some other reasons employees don’t speak up include the following: an office’s climate of fear, hierarchical structure, abusive leadership, attitudes of powerlessness and detachment, and a change-resistant office culture. (Check out the full chart of factors that impact employee voice here.) Silence doesn’t only result in missed opportunities; it can also negatively impact decision-making and change processes. Lack of communication can lead to three significant disadvantages, notes the research: 1) employees don’t feel valued; 2) employees sense a lack of control; and 3) employees exhibit a “discrepancy between beliefs and behavior,” also known as cognitive dissonance.

Yet employers and other office leaders can encourage employee communication using five key methods:

  • Foster a “group voice climate,” giving employees opportunities to observe and comment on peers’ work, providing suggestion boxes, surveys or other forums for them to share ideas and concerns.
  • Create trust and safety: Employees who are encouraged to share feedback are more likely to enjoy a sense of control over their environment. Build trust between leadership and management to create a psychologically-safe environment.
  • Cultivate group identification. Managers should “foster higher levels of identification with the common enterprise in order to strengthen employees’ drive to make a positive difference.”
  • Develop an honest environment. People are less inclined to share negative or “potentially threatening” info in general; managers should actively build a communicative culture that helps mitigate their fear.
  • Aim for “the right kind” of employee feedback: While employee silence is clearly damaging, an abundance of employee feedback can have negative consequences, too. “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.”

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Category: Office Hazards

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