We can’t just sit back and wait for feedback to be offered, particularly when we’re in a leadership role. If we want feedback to take root in the culture, we need to explicitly ask for it.
The role of employee voice in organizations – whether in the form of work-related complaints, participating in decision making, contributing new ideas, or providing feedback – has been topic of discussion and debate for over 200 years. The industrial revolution fueled the drive towards greater employee voice via organized labor. The information era precipitated the rise of Organizational Behavior as a discipline, and a greater focus on encouraging employees at all levels to contribute toward generating ideas, improving the effectiveness of teams and processes, and fostering well-being. Despite that encouragement, research by Gallup shows that only 30% of U.S. workers “strongly agree” that at work their opinions (voice) make a difference. Far too many employees choose silence.
Leaders must weave the expression of candid, healthy voice into the fabric of an organization, and have the courage to defend it through their words and actions.
Receiving far less attention is why some leaders also choose silence. Silence isn’t merely the absence of voice – it is also ‘speaking silently’: the reiteration of group-thought and corporate mantras rather than contributing and seeking candid, authentic views. While research on the topic is scarce – a Google Scholar search on the subject ‘leader silence’ produces 79 mostly unrelated results – the circumstantial evidence of the cost of leader silence is persuasive.
When Leaders Choose Silence
It would be the unusual leader who would admit that she isn’t interested in the thoughts and ideas of the people on her team or the broader organization. Fewer still would likely admit to choosing silence or to speaking silently, yet examples are all too common:
- Leaders failing to confront toxic colleagues. This can lead to a toleration of harsh language, biases (conscious and subconscious), bullying, withholding information, and resistance to feedback. More significantly, it corrodes the fundamental norms and values that are essential to performance and well-being. Uber is perhaps the best-known recent example, but there is no lack of similar stories. The #MeToo movement has highlighted examples across every industry.
- Leaders supporting low quality or questionable decisions. Failing to challenge decisions, despite inaccuracies or faulty thinking, increases risk and diminishes morale. The history of failed or failing acquisitions and mergers – think Microsoft and Nokia – provides a visible testament to poor decision making.
- Leaders tolerating peer incompetence. Ignoring performance gaps results in others having to do the work and a lowering of quality standards. Despite being nearly 50-years old the bestselling book, The Peter Principle, provides examples of the practices that lead to incompetence infecting organizations.
A central reason for a lack of authentic leader-voice within an organization is a culture that fosters a climate of silence.
Leader toxicity, poor decision making, and incompetence often amplify unintended negative consequences across an entire organization. Despite the consequences, a quick scan of the Wall Street Journal or similar source of business news quickly shows that the behaviors persist. A central reason for a lack of authentic leader-voice within an organization is a culture that fosters a climate of silence. Whether created intentionally or inadvertently, this environment emerges when there is a lack of commitment to constructive feedback among leaders within an organization. More specifically, feedback that identifies gaps between what leaders expect of their superiors and peers, and what they experience. Left unaddressed, those experience-expectation gaps become corrosive. Leaders experience an increase in the perceived risk of speaking out and a greater fear of damaging key relationships. Then, by opting to choose silence or speak silently, leaders risk becoming a contagion, diminishing authentic voice across the organization.
Walk the Talk
Leaders are told over and over the importance and benefits of encouraging candid, healthy employee voice. They are told that they should surround themselves with people of diverse perspectives who can disagree without fear of retaliation. When they don’t hold themselves to the same standard, they abdicate an essential leadership responsibility. An absence of an authentic voice from leaders can be dangerous for an organization, leading to reduced psychological safety, widespread loss of trust, the deterioration of key relationships, and ultimately disengagement. The impact on performance and well-being carries a heavy price for both employees and organizations. Leaders must weave the expression of candid, healthy voice into the fabric of an organization, and have the courage to defend it through their words and actions.
- Mowbray, P. K., Wilkinson, A. J., & Tse, H. H. M. (2014). An Integrative Review of Employee Voice: Identifying a Common Conceptualization and Research Agenda. International Journal of Management Reviews, 17(3), 382–400. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijmr.12045
- Elizabeth J. McClean, Sean R. Martin, Kyle J. Emich, Col. Todd Woodruff, (2018). The Social Consequences of Voice: An Examination of Voice Type and Gender on Status and Subsequent Leader Emergence. Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 61, №5. Published Online: 24 Oct 2018 https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2016.0148
- E. R. Burris, (2012). The Risks and Rewards of Speaking Up: Managerial Responses to Employee Voice. Published Online: 30 Apr 2012 https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2010.0562
- Nathanael J. Fast, Ethan R. Burris, and Caroline A. Bartel. Managing to Stay in the Dark: Managerial Self-Efficacy, Ego Defensiveness, and the Aversion to Employee Voice. Academy of Management Journal Vol. 57, №4 Articles. Published Online: 13 Sep 2013 https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2012.0393
- Jake Herwa. How to Create a Culture of Psychological Safety. Gallup Workplace, December 7, 2017. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/236198/create-culture-psychological-safety.
- Benjamin M. Artz, Amanda H. Goodall, and Andrew J. Oswald. Boss Competence and Worker Well-Being. ILR Review, 70(2), March 2017, pp. 419–450. https://doi.org/10.1177/0019793916650451