Companies benefit when employees speak up. When employees feel comfortable candidly voicing their opinions, suggestions, or concerns, organizations become better at handling threats as well as opportunities.
But employees often remain silent with their opinions, concerns or ideas. There are generally two viewpoints on why: One is the personality perspective, which suggests that these employees inherently lack the disposition to stand up and speak out about critical issues, that they might be too introverted or shy to effectively articulate their views to the team. This perspective gives rise to solutions such as hiring employees who have proactive dispositions and are more inclined to speak truth to power.
By contrast, the situational perspective argues that employees fail to speak up because they feel their work environment is not conducive for it. They might fear suffering significant social costs by challenging their bosses. This perspective leads to solutions focused on how managers can create the right social norms that encourage employees to voice concerns without fear of sanctions.
These two perspectives aren’t mutually exclusive, but we wanted to test which one matters more: If personality is the primary predictor of speaking up, situational factors shouldn’t matter as much. This means that employees who are inherently disposed to speak up will be the ones who more frequently do so. By contrast, if the situation or environment is the primary driver of speaking up, then employee personality should be less important – employees would speak up, irrespective of their underlying dispositions, when the work environment encourages speaking up, and they would stay silent when the environment doesn’t.
In our research we collected survey data from a manufacturing plant in Malaysia in 2014. We surveyed 291 employees and their supervisors (from 35 teams overall). We asked employees how likely they were inherently disposed to seeking out opportunities in their environment (also known in psychology as their approach orientation); this was how we assessed whether employees had a personality inclined toward speaking up. We also asked them whether speaking up is expected as part of their everyday work, and whether it is encouraged and rewarded or punished; this was how we assessed the situational norms associated with their work environment. Each employee rated their approach orientation, as well as the expectations in their job, using validated measures. For each employee in the team, we asked their supervisor to rate the frequency of speaking up.
The firm was responsible for manufacturing and sales of soaps, detergents, and other home cleaning products, and employees often encountered situations where there was compelling need to speak up about issues around current work operations. For instance, employees could suggest novel approaches to stacking raw materials, improving equipment layouts, or enhancing coordination during shift changes. They could also call out problems such as faulty safety gear or violations of standard operating procedures on the shop floor.
When we analyzed the data, we found that both personality and environment had a significant effect on employee’s tendency to speak up with ideas or concerns. Employees with a high approach orientation, who tend to seek opportunities and take more risks, spoke up more often with ideas than those with a lower approach orientation. And employees who believed they were expected to suggest ideas spoke up more than those who didn’t feel it was part of their job.
But we found that strong environmental norms could override the influence of personality on employees’ willingness to speak up at work. Even if someone had a low approach orientation, they spoke up when they thought it was strongly expected of them at work. And if someone had a high approach orientation, they’d be less likely to speak up with concerns when they thought it was discouraged or punished. Our data supported the situational perspective better than the personality perspective.
This finding suggests that if you want employees to speak up, the work environment and the team’s social norms matter. Even people who are most inclined to raise ideas and suggestions may not do so if they fear being put down or penalized. On the flip side, encouraging and rewarding speaking up can help more people do so, even if their personality makes them more risk-averse.
We also found that the environment could influence how employees spoke up. Employees voiced their opinions in two different ways—by identifying areas for improvement at work, and by diagnosing potential threats to the organization and calling out undesirable behaviors that might compromise safety or operations. We found that when norms at work encouraged detection of potential threats or problems, employees spoke out more on issues such as safety violations or breaches of established work practices. But when such norms encouraged improvements and innovation, employees more often spoke up with novel ideas for redesigning work processes that promoted innovation on the shop floor.
This suggests that work norms can not only encourage all employees to speak up but also focus their voice on specific issues confronting the organization. Managers working in contexts where innovation is important would do well to create an environment that specifically encourages employees to come up with ideas that can offer new opportunities for success. On the other hand, managers working in contexts where reliability is critical would do well to specifically create an environment where employees are focused on forecasting and speaking up about potential threats that can hinder or disrupt work operations.
Though we find convincing evidence in favor of the situational perspective for why employees do or don’t speak up, our study has its limitations. For instance, it was conducted in East Asia, where people ascribe to cultural value of collectivism and social norms might play a stronger role than in the more individualist West. Despite this caveat, our research suggests that if you want your employees to be more vocal and contribute ideas and opinions, you should actively encourage this behavior and reward those who do it.
Companies benefit when employees speak up. But employees often remain silent with their opinions, concerns or ideas. There are generally two viewpoints on why: One is the personality perspective, which suggests that these employees lack the disposition to speak out about critical issues, that they might be too introverted or shy to effectively articulate their views to the team. The second is the situational perspective, which argues that these employees fail to speak up because they feel their work environment is not conducive for it. These two perspectives aren’t mutually exclusive, but researchers wanted to test which one matters more. They collected survey data from a manufacturing plant in Malaysia, surveying 291 employees and their supervisors (from 35 teams overall) about their personalities, work environments, and frequency of speaking up. The researchers found that both personality and environment had a significant effect on employee’s tendency to speak up with ideas or concerns — but that strong environmental norms mattered more.