Maryland Smith Research / May 6, 2021

Here’s What Happens When New Employees Speak Up.

And: The downsides of what happens their new managers don’t listen.

Here’s What Happens When New Employees Speak Up.

When employees first join an organization, they bring a fresh perspective and can offer new ideas and viewpoints. But whether they feel like they can speak up – and continue to do so – often depends on the manager they are paired with, finds new research from Maryland Smith. If they don’t feel encouraged by their manager right away, many will stop trying. And that can have big implications for the organization and the manager.

Subra Tangirala, the Dean’s Professor of Management, worked with Smith PhD Alex Ning Li, now at Texas Christian University, on the research, published in the Academy of Management Journal. They tracked a group of people through their first six months in a new job to see how often they spoke up and whether that frequency increased or decreased over time.

Tangirala and Li found that many employees would speak up in the early stages, but whether they continued doing so depended on their managers. Are the managers open to fresh perspectives of new employees, or do they think newcomers should learn the lay of the land before weighing in?

“We often think newcomers don’t have ideas, but we found that because they are looking at things in a fresh light, they do have a lot of great ideas to share in the first six months,” Tangirala says. “Some of them do share those ideas when they are paired with the right managers. And other times they don’t, when they are paired with the wrong managers.”

In interviews with study participants, Tangirala and Li found that new employees’ voice played out one of two ways: “It can spiral up in a virtuous loop, where people start speaking up, managers encourage it, and every month it increases and the discussions become more enthusiastic,” says Tangirala. “Or, it can go in a steeply decelerating negative loop, with more and more silence each month.”

Whether a new employee’s contributions spiral into a positive loop or a negative loop was determined by the extent to which their supervisor shares an inclination to initiate change, Tangirala says. “Even the most proactive and outspoken employees might not be able to sustain their enthusiasm if they are paired with a change-resistant manager.”

Not only is this deflating for new employees, it’s also bad for the organization and managers themselves, says Tangirala.

“When employees were not speaking up, we found that over the period, managers’ performance actually decreased,” he says. “When employees speak up, we found clear evidence that managers’ own productivity increases. Managers were clearly benefitting from the ideas of their new employees.”

For managers, the big takeaway from the research is to encourage new employees to share their ideas and to listen when they do.

“Managers need to work with employees and utilize their ideas. Employees are the closest to customers, closest to equipment, closest to the things that happen in the department. This is one study where we clearly find that when newcomers are in a nurturing place and allowed to speak up, managerial performance skyrocketed. And when they were going on a negative spiral, manager performance also tracked down, indicating that these are real consequences.”

The research, “How Voice Emerges and Develops in Newly Formed Supervisor-Employee Dyads,” is featured in the Academy of Management Journal.


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