Are your Employees Are Afraid to Speak-up?

Cultur is a pervasive and powerful influence in any organisation

What would you think if you overheard an employee confiding in another, “If I tell the director…what customers are saying, my career will be shot”?

We actually heard this, verbatim, in the course of our research on communication in a leading high-technology corporation. Our study suggests that this type of self-censorship is common, from the rank and file right up through senior management.

We set out to systematically identify the factors that cause employees to bring ideas to their bosses—or withhold them—by interviewing nearly 200 individuals from all levels and functions of the company.

The firm had many formal mechanisms, such as an ombudsperson and grievance procedures, for encouraging people to speak up about serious problems, yet half the employee respondents in a recent culture survey had revealed that they felt it was not “safe to speak up” or challenge traditional ways of doing things. What they were most reticent to talk about were not problems but rather creative ideas for improving products, processes, or performance. Why? …


In a phrase, self-preservation.

While it’s obvious why employees fear bringing up certain issues, such as whistle-blowing, we found the innate protective instinct so powerful that it also inhibited speech that clearly would have been intended to help the organization. In our interviews, the perceived risks of speaking up felt very personal and immediate to employees, whereas the possible future benefit to the organization from sharing their ideas was uncertain.

So people often instinctively played it safe by keeping quiet. Their frequent conclusion seemed to be, “When in doubt, keep your mouth shut.” Sometimes, employees told us they feared speaking up because managers had been genuinely hostile about past suggestions, but this was relatively rare. More often, they were inhibited by broad, often vague, perceptions about the work environment. A culture of collective myths proved chilling—for example, stories of individuals who had said something in a public venue and then, as one R&D director put it, were “suddenly gone from the company.”

Implicit, seemingly untested assumptions also led to silence. Many people reported withholding input from a person higher up in the corporate hierarchy because they believed (without any evidence) that the superior felt ownership of the project, process, or issue in question and would resent suggestions that implied a need for change.

Employees also believed (again without direct experience) that their bosses would feel betrayed if constructive ideas for change were offered when more-senior leaders were present or that their bosses would feel embarrassed to be shown up by a subordinate in front of other subordinates.

Our findings suggest that encouraging speech, therefore, isn’t simply a matter of removing obvious barriers, such as a volatile leader or the threat of a summary dismissal (though that would help). Nor is it a matter of putting formal systems in place, like hotlines and suggestion boxes. Making employees feel safe enough to contribute fully requires deep cultural change that alters how they understand the likely costs (personal and immediate) versus benefits (organizational and future) of speaking up.

To reduce the costs, leaders must explicitly invite and acknowledge others’ ideas (this does not mean they must always implement them). Executives also must actively challenge the myths and assumptions that reinforce silence.

They might, for example, point out publicly that, contrary to common belief, suggestions should not be offered privately to save the boss’s face—that ideas are most helpful when they’re openly discussed and other people can help develop them. Employees might also contribute more if they could balance the untested, intangible costs they’ve been assuming against rewards that went beyond personal acknowledgment of speaking up—that is, to something tangible.

One possibility would be for managers to tailor their reward systems so that employees share more directly in the cost savings or revenue streams they help create by volunteering ideas.


Source HBR: by James R. Detert and Amy C. Edmondson

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