Why Employees Who Speak up Sometimes Remain Silent

Some of the best initiatives come from employees who put forward new ideas or call managers’ attention to problems that are impeding progress. On the flip side, organizations miss out on essential input when employees remain silent. The repercussions of silence can go beyond squandered opportunities. When employees are uncomfortable identifying concerns, managers can think the workplace is running smoothly because no one is talking about any possible problems.

But voice and silence are not opposite sides of the same coin. They are each distinct responses that require a managers attention, according to an Academy of Management Journal article.

“We find that the extent to which or how often a person speaks up with constructive ideas or issues at work (voice) is almost completely independent from the extent to which or how often they intentionally withhold ideas or issues (silence),” according to Elad N. Sherf of University of North Carolina, Michael R. Parke of University of Pennsylvania, and Sofya Isaakyan of Erasmus University Rotterdam. “We saw that people quite often volunteer ideas in order to help their teams even as they silenced other fears.”

It’s a complex proposition for managers because an employee might speak on one topic, but decide not to weigh in regarding another issue. “When people speak up with constructive ideas, we call that voice. When people withhold information, we call that silence. We found that people can still engage in high levels of voice, while withholding information,” Sherf said.

In their article, “Distinguishing Voice and Silence at Work: Unique Relationships with Perceived Impact, Psychological Safety, and Burnout,” Sherf, Parke, and Isaakyan take a deep dive into what inspires employees to speak out and what motivates them to withhold their thoughts. The authors analyzed 162 previous studies and then conducted a follow-up study with 405 employees at multiple companies over a six-month span.

They found that voice is more likely if employees:

  • believe their ideas will make an impact on the organization

  • lead to desired outcomes for themselves and their teams

The findings also show that silence is more likely if employees:

  • believe people are unable to take interpersonal risks in the workplace

  • expect they will be shunned for speaking out

This means that even as employees are raising some ideas and suggestions, “serious, fear-based issues aren’t being discussed: Human resource issues, injustice, unfairness,” according to Parke.

The differences between voice and silence are not limited to motivations to communicate, but also to the consequences. In particular, silence takes a human toll, contributing to employee burnout. Keeping concerns bottled up inside is more damaging to employees’ well-being than chipping in thoughts and ideas is in enhancing their well-being.

“Suppressing issues can be painful. People get exhausted. They don’t get to be their authentic selves,” Parke said.

This means that uniquely addressing both voice and silence is important for managers. Think of voice and silence as two different buckets, each with its own set of challenges. Cultivating voice requires mechanisms that let employees know their efforts to provide input will bear fruit. Eliminating silence and self-censoring requires eliminating backlash so employees feel safe.

“In other words, organizations may need a voice system and a silence system with multiple practices in each to ensure that employees’ input is properly recognized and rewarded to sustain perceptions of impact, as well as to reduce employees’ perceptions of harm or risk to increase psychological safety,” they wrote.

To maximize voice, leaders need to let employees know their input is valued by increasing their sense of impact in the workplace. This can be done by communicating how ideas are considered and highlighting when they are implemented. Asking employees for ideas and then not following up on their input can also be damaging to employees’ sense of impact. The authors wrote that it is important to let employees know their ideas are appreciated, even if the organization is not going to implement them. If employees don’t believe speaking up can make an impact, they are unlikely to speak up on other issues that affect the bottom line, such as ideas for new products and services.

To minimize silence, leaders need to ensure employees feel safe from negative repercussions if they speak up. Strategies, such as anonymous suggestion boxes or surveys, may help reduce silence on issues that employees might otherwise fear raising, such as reporting unethical behavior or mistreatment. But more importantly, leaders need to carefully monitor their own and others’ reactions to bad ideas or sensitive subjects, to ensure people do not experience backlash that might induce them to withhold their input.

“A lot of times in team meetings, colleagues are discussing issues. If people don’t speak up, leaders assume they have nothing to say and all is well. In reality, leaders need to work harder to draw them out, perhaps following up one-on-one with someone who didn’t say much, and ask, ‘Is there something you wanted to say?’” Parke said. “It’s not just having airtime. It’s about having it in a context where you feel you do not need to hold back.”

“Our findings suggest that leaders must go beyond using observable behaviors like levels of voice to decide which issues to manage and prioritize. Instead, they may need to intentionally seek out instances of silence to bring these ideas and concerns to the surface in order to manage them,” the authors wrote. “They can examine how much people voice and remain silent on different issues and use this to explore, with employees, the differences between what they are holding back versus speaking up about and why.”

“Persistence is important. Assure people in multiple ways that you really want their input and they won’t be punished in any way. Give workers that authority to challenge you. Let them know you want them to speak up,” Parke said.