Breaking Down the Effects of Speaking Up

Feb 13, 2018
As Featured In 
Journal of Applied Psychology

Speak Up To Boost Productivity and Safety at Work

Want to make more good things happen at work and prevent safety problems? Just ask team members to speak up. Encouraging team members to voice their constructive opinions and concerns about work-related issues leads to performance and safety gains, according to new research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Hui Liao and Subrahmaniam Tangirala, management professors at the Smith School, worked with Alex Ning Li, PhD ’17, a professor at Texas Christian University and Brady Firth, PhD ’14, a professor at the University of Iowa. They surveyed workers at a large chemical firm in China. The researchers found that team members can positively affect their teams by speaking up candidly with ideas or concerns about work processes. 

Managers who want to motivate teams to hit goals should explicitly ask team members to contribute new ideas for how to do so, according to the research. When individual team members speak up with new ideas for improvements — dubbed promotive voice by the researchers — the team is more productive. 

Asking team members to speak up about how to prevent accidents helps improve safety performance, the researchers found. When individuals express concerns about practices or behaviors that could hurt the team — prohibitive team voice — workplace safety improves. This effect was stronger when prior team safety performance was lower, indicating that teams that are having safety problems benefit the most from their members speaking up.

The researchers say encouraging both promotive and prohibitive team voice is critical for team success. They recommend managers carefully assess what they need from their teams and tailor their interactions to push members to speak up freely. For example, the researchers say, managers could allow time in team meetings for open brainstorming of new ideas to boost productivity. They also recommended managers stress the importance of safety and suggested they could push the issue by asking team members to point out problematic behaviors without worrying about negative consequences.

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.

About the Author(s)

Hui Liao

Dr. Hui Liao is the endowed Smith Dean's Professor in Leadership and Management at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. Before joining Maryland, she was on the faculties of the Rutgers University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She received her Ph.D. with concentrations in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and her BA in International Economics from the Renmin University of China.

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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