Employees are often afraid to speak up even though they may have something to say. New research points to the evolutionary origins of fear-based silence and highlights the productive steps (e.g. developing emotional intelligence and better communication skills) employees can take to overcome these fears.
Why don’t many employees say something when they see something wrong in the workplace, or when they are unfairly attacked by their boss? Why do they sit silent in meetings even though they may have a relevant suggestion or comment to add to the discussion?
These are examples of defensive employee silence, when employees stay quiet because they are afraid of the consequences to themselves if they speak.
Past research has examined organizational or personal causes of this fear, such as an organizational culture that discourages honesty or failure, or an egocentric boss who refuses to listen to other opinions. A new research paper delves deeper to identify two overlooked sources of fear-based verbal silence — evolution and past experiences.
The ‘fear module’ evolved over time in the human brain as a way to protect humans by enabling them to become aware of a threat and react immediately. This fear module still exists in the brain and operates the same way: triggered by threat cues and operating based on a ‘better safe than sorry’ philosophy. One of these threat cues, born in our evolutionary-based fear of the dominant individual, is authority: a boss is more fearsome than a peer, and a boss of a boss is even more fearsome!
Another deep-seated source of the fear is learned from past experiences. We’ve all had unpleasant experiences questioning authority. ‘Do not question authority’ is embedded in our institutional (e.g. through schools) and cultural socialization.
A third, less automatic or intuitive source of fear emerges from cognitive appraisal. In other words, we have enough experience and judgment to decide a situation is a source of danger, and thus raises our fears.
The researchers identified three different defensive silence responses to a fear-inducing event:
Combating the fear of speaking up to authority, built into the human psyche through evolution, socialization and our personal experiences, is no easy task.
One emotion that combats this fear is anger. Anger, however, is not only counterproductive but also self-defeating. Viewed as unprofessional, an angry response diminishes the credibility and influence of the attacker.
A more effective response is developing what researchers call ‘voice efficacy’. In essence, employees should acquire the emotional control, emotional intelligence and verbal communication skills to know when to speak up and how to express themselves in the most productive format possible. Employees must learn how to: control themselves and never cross the ‘impropriety threshold’ when dealing with superiors; frame information and deliver messages in such a way to communicate their positions in ways that are clear and appropriate; and discern the authority’s emotional state and, therefore, know when and how best to approach that authority.
Organizations are often hurt by fear-driven employee silence, which may be reducing employee engagement and preventing important information or insight from moving up the organization’s ranks. Organizations should take steps to motivate employees to speak up but also help them acquire the skills to do so effectively.
One starting point would be for organizational leaders to ask employees genuine questions, especially those that specifically invite individuals to offer their thoughts. Examples include: “What are we missing?” “What ideas haven't we considered?” “In your role you've probably given this some prior thought? What's on your mind?” Genuine questions such as these can be a surprisingly simple fix to defensive silence.
Silenced by Fear: The Nature, Sources, and Consequences of Fear at Work. Jennifer J. Kish-Gephart, James R. Detert, Linda Klebe Treviño & Amy C. Edmondson. Research in Organizational Behavior (August 2009).
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