Rumors, Open Secrets and Tesla's Blind Spot

Company Cracks Down on Gossip Site, But Will It Work?

Jun 08, 2019
Management and Organization

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Open secrets abound on Blind, a social media app that allows coworkers to hide their identities while venting in firm-specific forums. Most companies look the other way, allowing grievances to fester online. But Tesla Motors recently took a different approach, shutting down access by blocking confirmation emails that come to the Tesla domain.

That's one way to address the lack of a speak-up culture. A better response might be to take a step back and examine why employees would want to hide in the shadows on gossip sites like Blind in the first place, rather than sharing their concerns with managers in a constructive manner.

New research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business offers insights on how open secrets develop at work, and why online rumor mills that promote employee voice might actually hinder necessary reforms at companies with culture problems.

“We found that as issues become more common knowledge among frontline employees, the willingness of any individual employee to bring those issues to the attention of the top management decreased,” Maryland Smith PhD student Insiya Hussain and professor Subra Tangirala write in Harvard Business Review.

They trace the workplace silence and desire for anonymity to a psychological phenomenon called the “bystander effect.” When more people know about a problem — whether the information circulates at the watercooler or online — each individual feels less obligated to step forward and face potential backlash for speaking up.

“Our research shows that when multiple individuals know about an issue, each of them experiences a diffusion of responsibility or the sense that they need not personally take on any costs or burden associated with speaking up,” the authors write. “They feel that others are equally knowledgeable and, hence, capable of raising the issue with top management.”

Hussain and Tangirala, working with co-authors from the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore and Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, explore the phenomenon in a series of three studies summarized in the Academy of Management Journal.

Read more detailed summaries at Maryland Smith Research or Harvard Business Review.

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About the Expert(s)

Subra Tangirala is Dean's Professor of Management. He teaches the leadership course in the MBA program. In his research, he explores reasons why employees often remain silent despite having information, concerns, or suggestions to share, and what organizations can do to facilitate candid exchange of ideas at the workplace.

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