Employees know what is going on inside their organizations, which is why it is critical to hear them out. However, a problem is that employees often choose not to speak up. Have you ever heard the saying or first-hand experienced that "managers are the last to know”? It is well known that despite having valuable ideas, opinions, and other information to share, employees frequently choose to remain silent with their superiors (Morrison, 2014).
Besides being bad for employee morale, lack of upward communication is also associated with detrimental effects on organizational performance. Sometimes employee silence is also associated with disastrous results like the Enron scandal and the Columbia space shuttle disaster. In the case of Columbia, engineers had already noted trouble brewing prior to its fatal flight. The ensuing investigation attributed the explosion in large part to organizational culture resulting in employee silence (Greenberg & Edwards, 2009).
A study on collective intelligence highlights the importance of speaking up for team performance. Woolley and Malone (2011) found that on a wide variety of tasks teams dominated by women performed better than teams dominated by men. The explanation was that women stood out in creating inclusive processes where all the members’ voices were heard. This shows that for groups to be collectively intelligent it is insufficient to be cognitively diverse.
The same study showed that the average IQ of the teams’ members had little bearings on the teams’ problem-solving prowess. What determined the teams’ collective intelligence, therefore, was not IQ, but the combination of cognitive diversity and members’ social sensitivity. In other words, the key factor that explained performance differentials between teams was inclusion.
Why employees choose not to speak up has several explanations. The bystander effect posits that when information is shared by many employees, they sometimes assume that peers will pass on the relevant information to their superior (Hussain et al., 2019).
"Consequently, the elephant in the room remains."
That means the problem is obvious to everyone except the leader just like in the tale of the Emperor's new clothes. In a way, the bystander effect is caused by a diffusion of responsibility.
Silence can also result from beliefs that speaking up is futile or due to fears of repercussions (Morrison, 2014). Most organizations are built on hierarchical structures that create power differentials between their people. Employees are sensitive to office politics and ‘tread lightly’ around those in power. Office politics can often silence employee voice.
For example, when polling chairs of medicine and surgery departments in the USA, 69% of the respondents reported that it was not 'common to raise or talk about important problems (Souba et al., 2010). Similar silence issues in the medical community were picked up by surgeon and writer Atul Gawande.
To deal with the complexities in surgeries, Gawande (2010) came up with a checklist. The checklist has proven to be an effective tool, not least by contributing to create equal voices in the operation room; by following the checklist nurses can easily voice up about problems despite being formally ‘outranked’ by surgeons.
Gawande also tells about creating weekly meetings where medical staff discuss what happened during surgeries, including mistakes that may have caused lifelong afflictions or even fatal outcomes. By creating a safe place where surgeons could admit and discuss errors, patients’ death rates have become increasingly lower and their recovery increasingly faster.
Stories like this from the medical ward help to explain why psychological safety has become a buzzword in team management. According to Edmondson (2018) who coined the term, “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” As Edmondson emphasizes, safety is not about ‘being nice’ to each other, but rather creating professionalism and a culture where it is ok to make mistakes and take risks in search of better solutions.
Inclusion, which is the overarching goal of diversity management, involves tackling head-on the more general problem of employee silence. As Brenna (2021) puts it, diversity management is about creating a mindset of inclusivity. Central to the diversity project is creating a culture where speaking up is the norm.
However, Brenna strongly emphasizes that real inclusion cannot be created unless employees feel an authentic sense of belonging. If organizations do not go the extra mile in creating an environment and expressions of how diversity is valued there will not be unity. This comes back to that minority identity groups linked to gender, LGBTQ, ethnicity, and culture easily feel some level of exclusion. Without a real sense of belonging, their motivation to speak up quickly wanes.
To reap the benefits of diversity, it is important that everybody feel compelled to participate irrespective of identity. Hiring a diverse crowd will not add much value unless these differences can flourish in team collaborations.
As Page (2019) explains, it is the recombination of complementary abilities, skills, and experiences that lead to novel and superior solutions to problems. Inclusive organizations put in place systems that promote diverse voices and let the sparks of creative conversations fly.
A final thought goes to Amy Edmonsen who suggests changing the old saying ‘don’t kill the messenger’ to ‘embrace the messenger’. The rephrasing helps to drive home the point of how important employee voices are for creating sustainable organizational performance.
Brenna, L. R. (2021). The Parable of The Dog and The Peacock: How top organizations create unity, inclusion, and a culture of diversity. St. John’s Press.
Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. John Wiley & Sons.
Gawande, A. (2010). Checklist manifesto, the (HB). Penguin Books India.
Greenberg, J. & Edwards, M. (2009). Voice and Silence in Organizations. Bingley, UK: Emerald.
Hussain, I., Shu, R., Tangirala, S., & Ekkirala, S. (2019). The voice bystander effect: How information redundancy inhibits employee voice. Academy of Management Journal, 62(3), 828-849.
Morrison, E. W. (2014). Employee voice and silence. Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav., 1(1), 173-197.
Page, S. E. (2019). The diversity bonus: How great teams pay off in the knowledge economy. Princeton University Press.
Souba, W., Way, D., Lucey, C., Sedmak, D., & Notestine, M. (2011). Elephants in academic medicine. Academic Medicine, 86(12), 1492-1499.
Woolley, A., & Malone, T. (2011). What makes a team smarter? More women. Harvard business review, 89(6), 32-33.
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