Management for the masses: Speaking up or speaking out?

Indiana University Kelley School of Business  8.31.10Your organization needs employees who express their thoughts and opinions. This phenomenon, known in the literature as “employee voice,” is often the way problems are identified and solved, or new products developed. In fact, the lack of employee voice has been blamed for such notable failures as the Challenger disaster and airplane crashes.

But despite its value, employee voice isn’t always rewarded. Hearing bad news is rarely pleasant, and having problems pointed out by a subordinate is something some managers aren’t comfortable experiencing. Many managers don’t reward employee voice because it is often expressed with significant negative emotion. People typically don’t speak out about something unless they’re upset, and that emotional state can prompt them to communicate less effectively by yelling, threatening, or otherwise expressing their displeasure in ways that are hard to hear.

A recent study confirmed that the way in which employees express negative views or feedback makes a difference in whether it is acknowledged or acted upon. Employees who are capable of controlling their emotions are simply better heard and more positively treated than those who cannot exercise this control. This likely comes as no surprise: messages are heard and acted upon more easily when listeners can respond to them rationally; messages are often “spoiled” by negative emotional content.

What makes this study noteworthy, however, was the finding that employees are generally aware of their own abilities and limitations in controlling their emotions. People with better skills at controlling or hiding their emotions are more likely to engage in employee voice.

Based on this research, managers would do well to remember that people typically won’t come forward with a problem unless they feel strongly about it – so someone who approaches you with an issue should have their concerns treated with respect. Luckily, those most likely to comment are also those with the skills to discuss their issues most rationally. But to gain the benefits that can accrue from open communication at work, supervisors also need to control their own emotional responses and use their emotion regulation skills to become better listeners.

Grant, A. M. (2013).  Rocking the boat but keeping it steady: The role of emotion regulation in employee voice.  Academy of Management Journal, 56, 1703-1723.