Overcoming Our Evolutionary Fears to Speak Up to Authority - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #498

Overcoming Our Evolutionary Fears to Speak Up to Authority

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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:

  • Non-deliberative defensive silence is an automatic and non-conscious response. It’s the closest thing to the evolutionary flight response, except that employees can’t run out of the room. Non-deliberative defensive silence occurs when the threat is intense and there is no or little time to prepare for the threat — such as when a boss suddenly has a violent outburst.
  • Deliberative defensive silence is intentional and conscious. This type of silence occurs when there is ample time to prepare for the threat and usually when the severity of the threat is low (your job is not on the line).
  • Schema-driven defensive silence is at once a conscious and an automatic response. It is conscious because the employee consciously decides to be silent. But it is automatic because it is based more on related past experiences and mental perceptions (schemas) than on a deliberate examination of the situation at hand. If the employee knows of a case in which somebody lost their job for a situation similar to the one she is facing, that employee almost immediately decides to stay quiet (‘it’s too dangerous’) without recognizing that there might have been different circumstances in the other experience. Schema-driven defensive silence occurs in two different situations: when the threat is less intensive but there is little time to respond (the employee thus defaults to the schema-based response), or when there is ample time to respond but the threat is high, giving the employee time to consider the related-experiences and decide to turn to the safest response: silence. 


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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Idea conceived

August 1, 2009

Idea posted

Mar 2015
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