Research by Subrahmaniam Tangirala
When there is a problem in the workplace, employees have two options: remain
silent or speak up. Unfortunately, many employees choose to remain silent, to
the great detriment of the organizations for which they work.
Employees remain silent about conflicts with co-workers, disagreements about
organizational decisions, potential weaknesses in work processes, illegal or
dangerous behaviors, and individual grievances. Their silence keeps management
from receiving critical information that would allow their organizations to
improve or address problems before they have adverse effects.
Reducing employee silence, then, is a key concern for managers. Subrahmaniam
Tangirala, assistant professor of management and organization, with co-author
Rangaraj Ramanujam, Vanderbilt University, examined how the effects of
individual-level variables such as professional pride, loyalty to the
organization and individual perceptions of organizational fairness and
supervisor status affected employee silence. They also looked at the effect of a
group-level variable, a climate of fairness in the workplace.
The authors used data from a survey of front-line nurses in several large
Midwestern hospitals. They chose nurses as their study group because employee
silence in a hospital context can have serious and even fatal consequences for
patients, with as many as 98,000 Americans dying each year from preventable
medical errors. Why would nurses, whose professional identity is bound up in
patient care, choose to stay silent even in a life-or-death situation?
The answer appears to be twofold, says Tangirala. People don’t speak up
because they fear retaliation against themselves, or because they are hesitant
to point out the flaws of their peers.
Surveys were mailed to 850 nurses, each of whom had at least six months
tenure with the hospital. The nurses were part of 30 different nursing
departments, each headed by a nurse-supervisor. The survey consisted of four
separate mailings with a response rate of 72 percent. Nurses were asked to rate
themselves on how closely they identified with their workgroup, their
professional commitment, the perceived status of their supervisors, and their
perception of fairness in the workplace.
The authors found that nurses were less silent when they identified with
their workgroup, felt proud of and attached to their profession, and perceived a
high level of fairness in the workplace.
“Developing both organizational attachment and professional attachment is
very important for reducing employee silence,” says Tangirala. “Organizations
that want to reduce employee silence need to enhance organizational pride by
increasing employees’ satisfaction at work. Managers must also increase
employees’ pride in their profession—tell them what the end product of their
work is, and train them constantly, so they feel they are at the cutting edge in
their occupation. Help them see the significance of their tasks: You’re not
just cutting stone, you’re building a temple.”
But to the authors’ surprise, they found that these factors were not
sufficient to reduce employee silence unless they were accompanied by a
group-level perception of a fair work environment.
“Nurses are known to have great pride in their profession, and we found that
many had great attachment to their organizations. But rather than confront a
problem head-on, they would try in small ways to tackle the problem because they
were afraid of speaking up,” says Tangirala.
However, if everyone in the workgroup feels that the supervisor is fair,
employees worry less about personal retaliation and about creating problems for
their co-workers when relating information about problem to a supervisor. This
creates a climate where employees feel more comfortable speaking up.
The authors also found that the higher the supervisor’s status, the more
likely the nurses were to remain silent. This highlighted the unintended
consequences of a current trend in hospital management to give nurse-supervisors
“In a lot of literature it is recommended that nurse-supervisors be given
more power and authority within the organization because they play a crucial
role in spearheading organizational initiatives to improve patient safety,” says
Tangirala. “But our research shows that the more power a supervisor is perceived
to have, the less likely it is that nurses will share critical information. High
supervisor status seems to prevent lower-level employees from sharing
information—an aspect that hospitals should be mindful of.”
“Employee Silence on Critical Work Issues: The Cross Level Effects of
Procedural Justice Climate” was published in Personnel Psychology. For more
information about this research, please contact