When Silence Isn’t Golden

Employees are often a manager’s first line of defense when it comes to identifying and addressing problems on the spot.

But what if employees don’t speak up when they see something wrong? Too often, that leaves the entire company’s performance at a disadvantage, according to a recent study from Elizabeth Morrison and Kelly See of New York University’s Stern School of Business and Caitlin Pan of SIM University in Singapore.

The three researchers conducted a lab experiment, a survey of healthcare workers, and a survey of employees working in a range of industries. They found that the more employees feel powerless to influence others, the more likely they are to stay silent. Of course, their silence can lead to small problems magnifying over time.

The authors emphasize that supervisors can take steps to create an environment where employees feel their initiative will pay off. For instance, they can foster work environments that show that they are open to input and direct communication from their staff. That, in turn, will make it more likely that employees will approach them when problems first arise.

When employees remain silent even in the face of serious problems, the consequences can be disastrous, the authors write. They point to examples that range from the financial collapse of Enron and the crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia to the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State and the ignition switch failure at GM. The authors hope their study will help supervisors “understand why this occurs and how this tendency to withhold important information can be mitigated.”

“An Approach-Inhibition Model of Employee Silence: The Joint Effects of Personal Sense of Power and Target Openness” is forthcoming in Personal Psychology.