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Managing employee silence

Sep 01, 2008

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Research by Subrahmaniam Tangirala

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.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.

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 more authority.

“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 stangirala@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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