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Why Workers Don't Speak Up, Even When Invited

By:
Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Feb 8, 2016
GaggedCorporate leaders blindsided by long-simmering internecine problems may ask themselves "why didn't anyone tell me about this sooner?" They could easily look to the company's open door policy or anonymous comment system--so why don't they? 

A pair of researchers from Cornell University and the University of Texas who have conducted a series of studies from 2011 to 2013 into this question say that the reason rests on two factors: futility and fear, according to the Harvard Business Review. In short, while the top brass might say they encourage people on all rungs of the corporate hierarchy to make their voices heard, workers simply don't believe them. Even if explicitly told that negative feedback won't draw retaliation, workers still believe they will be targeted for it if they criticize the leadership, and even if they weren't, they don't think their comments will have much impact anyway. And so, even if invited to do so by their superiors, employees are unlikely to speak freely, even on important company matters. 

This aligns with similar studies on the effects of hierarchy on workplace communication. One study, for example, found that people are less direct when denying an unethical request if it comes from their boss rather than a peer. This could be because, as another study found, workers are reluctant to be seen disagreeing with their supervisor, leading to silence and equivocation. And even when speaking directly to their boss, another study found that these communications are still loaded with hedges and qualifiers (e.g., "when you have time," "please take a look," or "thought you would"), indicating a hesitance to speak in a straightforward manner.  

If a company is serious about getting better feedback from its rank and file (though the authors say many aren't), it needs to be casual, transparent, and actively sought out. They also recommended reducing factors that emphasize power relations, like using different body language or locating meetings where workers have home field advantage. Taking steps like these, said the authors, can lead to better feedback and a more engaged workforce, both things that can make a real difference to the overall bottom line.