Maryland Smith Research / April 13, 2021

Have Something To Say? Your Boss Wants You to Do it in Private.

Research Shows Managers Don’t Like When Employees Speak Up in Public

Have Something To Say? Your Boss Wants You to Do it in Private.

When employees feel comfortable speaking up at work with new ideas or concerns, it benefits the team and the organization. But managers want employees to share those thoughts in one-on-one settings – not public meetings – because they want to save face, finds new research from Maryland Smith’s Subra Tangirala.

Tangirala, Dean’s Professor of Management, worked with Smith PhD Elad N. Sherf, now at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and Sofya Isaakyan of Erasmus University Rotterdam and Hannes Guenter of Maastricht University, on the new research, forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Tangirala has extensively studied employee voice and how when employees speak up, it can lead to better problem solving, stronger teams and innovation. Employees need to feel like they have forums to speak up, he says. And while doing so at a group meeting might seem like the most effective way to spur immediate engagement with the whole team on a broached subject, managers often don’t like that, find Tangirala and his co-authors.

“When employees speak up publicly, we see that managers are often threatened by it. Managers have this tendency to react negatively to public voice because they feel that they lose control of the conversation and look inept in front of everyone,” says Tangirala.

But this doesn’t mean that managers want employees to keep quiet, he says.

“Managers want voice, and voice helps managers – when people speak up, managers can do a lot of positive things. Employees have a lot of good ideas, which can help the team.”

They just psychologically prefer that employees don’t speak truth to power in front of everyone. They would much rather have a closed-door discussion with the employee.

This aversion to public voice is especially strong when it comes from employees who are not that relationally close to the manager.

“This can have a very bad effect on organizations because employees who are not part of ‘in-groups’ of the managers usually only have opportunities to reach the managers in public meetings,” says Tangirala.

If managers are responding negatively to those employees when they use public forums, it’s a loss because they will fail to gain access to an outsider perspective that those employees can provide, Tangirala says.

“Managers are actually undercutting their own effectiveness by dismissing ideas that are brought up publicly and only relying on private channels for ideas,” says Tangirala. “That can be detrimental to their effectiveness and can be bad for the team.”

The researchers hope organizations take note of the findings and encourage managers to be open to hearing what employees have to say in public forums without being overly concerned with how it might impact their own image. Managers also need to be aware that their reactions to voice can be shaped by their personal relationships with employees, causing them to miss out on perspectives from people outside their inner circle, says Tangirala.

And for employees who have something to say? They’ll likely be more successful bringing up their ideas with managers in private, says Tangirala.

The full research, “Keeping It Between Us: Managerial Endorsement of Public Versus Private Voice,” is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.


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