To Speak or Not to Speak is an Age Old Question

by Sabreena Andriesz, PhD, MCC

An organization’s atmosphere has a considerable influence on a person’s freedom to speak up. This is true for all systems, whether it is a family, a company or community. If a person thinks it is futile to voice their opinion, silence is the easier option (Morrison and Milliken, 2000). This is particularly apt in organizations when employees think their opinions are irrelevant to decision making processes (Pinder and Harlos, 2001). Unless opportunities to contribute opinions are presented to workers people will generally think the decision made is unfair and retreat into silence. (Greenberg and Edwards, 2009).

Co-workers’ perceptions can also influence an employee’s decision to speak up. The lack of openness to voice a point of view can be caused by a fear of isolation, especially if the perspective does not belong to the majority (Bowen and Blackmon, 2003). There are those who are “other-oriented” and prefer to co operate by agreeing with team consensus instead of bringing forth an alternative opinion. (Dyne, Ang & Botero, 2003). Identity is a critical component when evaluating an individual’s motivation to speak up (Creed, 2010). When a person’s values or beliefs are at odds with the dominant organizational ethos it is most likely that an individual will hesitate to voice their views (Meyerson, 2001).

In research on the facilitators and barriers to a leader’s career trajectory in western MNCs speaking up was identified as one of the competencies critical to an Asian-born leaders ability to advance their careers into upper management This phenomenon was attributed to the social conditions learnt from an individual’s historical imprints. A child is exposed to different systemic influences from a young age such as family, education, religion and community. As individuals oscillate within these constellations from infanthood to adulthood, it comes as no surprise that these primary ideologies will present themselves within the organizational system that the person enters when s/he becomes an adult (Andriesz, 2019).

This perspective on the external influences that form personalities is referred to as ‘group socialization theory’ (Harris, 2011). The theory proposes that genes are not the primary effect on the personality and the behaviour of a child and that the environmental factors during a child’s formative years also contribute to a child’s characteristics. As a result, children are formed through the groups they socialize with as much as the quality of attachment with the primary caregiver. Thus, we could concur that adult behaviour in organizations is also pre-determined by similar historical reference points.

Doing the right thing or being seen in a particular way requires a person to monitor their identity. High self-monitoring individuals are selective with the way they communicate, they may express views that cast them in a favorable light as it controls their public persona (Snyder, 1977), Whereas low self-monitoring individuals consider speaking up as a way of expressing their attitude and opinions in an honest manner (Premeaur and Bedeian, 2003). If we trace back the origins of the ability to opinionate, it is questionable whether the freedom to express is truly encouraged in the architecture of the education system. Through education and training, individual ideologies can be shaped to form a homogenous collective outcome. A secure base is formed in the early years of development and without that security we are liable to limit our potential This emphasis on the importance of secure bases is particularly pertinent within organizational settings as each individual’s mind will selectively assess and determine how it chooses to respond (Kohlreisser, 2006).

The way leaders cultivate their work environment is critical to how openly employees are willing to share their views with management. When leaders demonstrate individual consideration, inspire, and motivate their workforce it positively influences feelings of competence and commitment; and creates increased feelings of responsibility. These leadership attributes are directly correlated to how much employees voice their opinions (Greenberg & Edwards, 2009). Leaders who are effective in creating workplaces where people feel comfortable raising issues are also diffusing psychological barriers created by status and hierarchical differences. It generates a safe space for employees to voice their concerns and problems (Edmondson, 2018). Providing opportunities to employees to speak up not only grows self-confidence, it enables a more agile and innovative corporate culture.


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