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Research Highlights

Why Employees Often Don’t Speak Up

By Elizabeth Morrison and Kelly See

Morrison and See

Employees often choose to withhold information about important issues or concerns at work, which can cause problems to persist and escalate.

It is surprisingly common for employees to remain silent about important issues that they encounter at work. When this happens, it can have very serious performance implications. In a new study, NYU Stern Professors Elizabeth Morrison and Kelly See, along with co-author Caitlin Pan of SIM University, examine why employees often withhold important suggestions and concerns, and find that a sense of powerlessness plays a key role.

The authors conducted three studies – a laboratory experiment, a survey study of healthcare workers and a survey study of employees working across a wide range of industries. Key findings and conclusions include:
  • Employees often choose to withhold information about important issues or concerns at work, which can cause problems to persist and escalate.
  • A key factor contributing to silence is an employee’s perception that he or she has little power in relation to others at work.
  • This effect of feeling powerless is significantly reduced, however, when the employee regards his or her supervisor as open to input.
  • Supervisors can foster a work environment that reduces feelings of powerlessness among employees, and convey genuine openness to input, thereby encouraging more upward communication.
“The consequences of employees not speaking up when they are aware of serious problems can be disastrous,” explained the authors, “as seen in many salient examples such as the implosion of Enron, the crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia, the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State and the faulty ignition switch debacle at GM. In each case, there were people who were aware of serious issues or problems, but they failed to speak up and the situation escalated.” The goal of this study, explained the authors, was to “better understand why this occurs and how this tendency to withhold important information can be mitigated, so that hopefully more problems and errors in the workplace can be averted.”

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