Management and Organization
Gaining Confidence To Speak Up
Mar 25, 2021

Gaining Confidence To Speak Up

When Women Managers Speak Up, Others Will Follow

Mar 25, 2021
Management and Organization
As Featured In 
Journal of Applied Psychology

Women don’t speak up as much as men do in organizations because they lack confidence. But they can gain confidence to contribute more if they see women leaders speaking up first, finds new research from Maryland Smith, forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Smith management professor Subrahmaniam Tangirala worked with Thomas Taiyi Yan of University College London, Abhijeet K. Vadera of Singapore Management University and Srinivas Ekkirala of the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. They looked at how often both women and men speak up in the workplace and found that women do, in fact, remain silent more frequently than men.

“Women can lack the confidence to speak up in groups,” says Tangirala. “One of the reasons is that they don’t have, throughout their lifetime, many experiences of speaking up because it’s much more encouraged in men than women.”

Girls are often not taught to be assertive and don’t have as many opportunities to speak up as boys, which translates to the workplace. But the researchers point to a remedy: More female managers to model how to speak up.

“The solution, then, is that you need to have good role models in organizations for women to learn the skills and develop the confidence to speak up,” Tangirala says. “That means having female leaders who speak up.”

The researchers used data from a field study involving 368 employees and their leaders from a variety of industries in India, along with a study in an online panel of 546 U.S.-based workers.

“What we found through both an experiment and field study was that you need your immediate supervisors to act as good role models,” says Tangirala. “We found that women were more positively affected and gained more confidence when they saw women leaders speaking up. You need to have relatable role models. It’s not just seeing any manager. It’s much more symbolically processed when she sees women leaders speak up.”

Tangirala points to two reasons why:

“People need to realize that men and women have different experiences,” he says. Women employees in the researchers’ sample felt they could relate more to the experiences of female leaders. That made them feel more likely to want to emulate those leaders’ behaviors.

Reason No. 2: “Men and women have different ways of speaking and different ways of communicating. We found that women said they felt they could learn more from a female manager than from a male manager on how to speak up because the style of the female manager makes them more comfortable.”

“Women continue to have low confidence because there are not as many women leaders in organizations,” he says. “The lack of women leaders to role model this behavior might be a reason why women’s voices are not visible in the workplace.”

Organizations can change that by hiring and promoting more women, he says. And not necessarily only at the top (though that would be good, too) but throughout the management structure: “Women need to see immediate managers – women who are one level above them – taking these actions,” Tangirala says. “Women need to see relatable role models who speak up and engage in these behaviors.”

Organizations also need to actively encourage employees to contribute, and listen when they do, Tangirala says.

“For organizations, it’s very clear that they need to encourage women to speak up at all levels, and especially middle management and frontline supervisors. When they do that, it helps all the people below to learn from them and do the same.”

Read the full research, “How Employees Learn to Speak Up from Their Leaders: Gender Congruity Effects in the Development of Voice Self-Efficacy,” in the Journal of Applied Psychology.


About the Author(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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