Find Your Team Voice

Mar 16, 2018

Women Leading Research: Hui Liao

Hui LiaoSMITH BRAIN TRUST – Team performance improves when individuals speak up and share opinions. But the type of progress made depends on what colleagues choose to emphasize when they find their collective voice. New research, co-authored by Hui Liao at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, suggests two distinct possibilities.

“A speak up culture can lead to gains in either productivity or safety,” Liao says. “Both are important, but the content of team voice tends to favor one or the other.”

Promotive team voice, which emphasizes novel ideas and accomplishment of previously unachieved goals, fosters increased productivity. Prohibitive team voice, which emphasizes prevention of pain or harm, fosters increased safety.

“We argue that promotive and prohibitive team voices differentially benefit two distinct but equally critical team outcomes,” the authors write in their study, forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Besides Liao, contributors include Smith School professor Subra Tangirala and Smith School PhD alumni Alex Ning Li, currently at Texas Christian University, and Brady Firth, currently at the University of Iowa.

The researchers test their model at a large chemical plant, using data from 88 teams working on nine assembly lines. “Achieving the right balance between productivity and safety is crucial in manufacturing,” Liao says. “But the research has implications for other industries as well.”

Prohibitive team voice in a bank setting, for example, might not reduce physical injuries. But speaking up about harmful business practices might have stopped Wells Fargo from issuing millions of fraudulent accounts prior to the 2016 scandal that forced the resignation of CEO John Stumpf.

Promotive team voice, meanwhile, might work great to shake up a cautious committee bogged down by bureaucracy and meetings.

“The type of team voice you promote will predict the type of performance gains you achieve, ” Liao says. “So it’s important to consider team strengths and weaknesses, and what direction you want to go.”

A Tale of Two Voices: What type of voice does your team currently have? Liao offers the following guidelines to distinguish between promotive and prohibitive voice.

  • Promotive: You encourage the expression of novel ideas. You celebrate exploration and risk taking. You focus on a future ideal state and imagine what could be. Success is measured by how well you meet or exceed productivity standards. Efforts increase when you detect a discrepancy between current productivity levels and ideal possible productivity levels.
  • Prohibitive: You call out harmful or deviant behaviors. You warn about the dangers of taking shortcuts. You focus on loss prevention or anything that might harm or put the team in jeopardy. Success is measured by compliance with safety regulations. Team members monitor each other, and vigilance increases when you detect violations of established protocols.

Read more: The Content of the Message Matters: The Differential Effects of Promotive and Prohibitive Team Voice on Team Productivity and Safety Performance Gains is featured in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Hui Liao is the Smith Dean’s Professor in Leadership and Management in the Department of Management and Organization at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Research interests: Leadership and human capital development; proactivity and creativity; service quality; high-performance work systems; organizational justice and inclusion.

Selected accomplishments: Cummings Scholarly Achievement Award from the Academy of Management (AOM)’s Organizational Behavior Division; Scholarly Achievement Award and Early Career Achievement Award from the AOM Human Resources Division; Dorothy Harlow Distinguished Paper Award from the AOM Gender and Diversity in Organizations Division. Distinguished Early Career Contributions Award from the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology.

About this series: The Smith School faculty is celebrating Women’s History Month 2018 in partnership with ADVANCE, an initiative to transform the University of Maryland by investing in a culture of inclusive excellence. Daily faculty spotlights support activities from the school’s Office of Diversity Initiatives, starting with the seventh annual Women Leading Women forum on March 1, 2018.

Other fearless ideas from:  Rajshree Agarwal  |  Ritu Agarwal  |  T. Leigh Anenson  |  Kathryn M. Bartol  |  Christine Beckman  |  Margrét Bjarnadóttir  |  M. Cecilia Bustamante  |  Jessica M. Clark  |  Rellie Derfler-Rozin  |  Waverly Ding  |  Wedad J. Elmaghraby  |  Rosellina Ferraro  |  Rebecca Hann  | Amna Kirmani  |  Hanna Lee  |  Hui Liao  |  Jennifer Carson Marr  |  Wendy W. Moe  |  Courtney Paulson  |  Louiqa Raschid  |  Rebecca Ratner  |  Debra L. Shapiro  |  M. Susan Taylor  |  Niratcha (Grace) Tungtisanont  |  Vijaya Venkataramani  |  Janet Wagner  |  Yajin Wang  |  Yajun Wang  |  Liu Yang  |  Jie Zhang  |  Lingling Zhang

Photo illustration credit: SIphotography



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