Speak Freely?

Deciphering our decisions to voice ideas and opinions in a group—or keep them to ourselves

To speak or not to speak? That is the question we frequently ask ourselves when we’re part of a group. What factors guide our decisions to express—or suppress—our opinions and ideas?

According to new research by Xiao-Ping Chen, a professor of management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, it’s complicated.

Chen’s study into the dynamics of group interaction at five workplaces identifies a veritable word cloud of overlapping factors, motives and moderators. But two figure most prominently.

People are most likely to speak up in work teams when they believe that their input will be endorsed by management and received positively by the group.

“Employees are likely to speak up if they perceive high efficacy and low risk associated—that is, if they believe their voice will be socially desirable,” says Chen, the Philip M. Condit Chair in Business Administration at Foster.

Power distance

It’s simply human nature to weigh the ramifications of speaking up in a group.

To better understand what’s at work behind these decisions, Chen and co-authors Xin Wei of the University of International Business and Economics and Zhi-Xue Zhang of Peking University surveyed 85 work teams at five high-tech firms in China. Each consisted of three to eight members and was led by a middle manager.

Xiao-Ping Chen portrait
Xiao-Ping Chen

The researchers asked employees a number of questions designed to assess their personal values of group harmony (aversion to conflict) and power distance (acceptance of one’s place in a hierarchy—the higher the power distance, the greater the reluctance to speak up). The questions also gauged their perceptions of the organization’s climate and culture, the extent of delegation, and the efficacy and risk of speaking one’s mind.

In turn, the researchers asked team leaders to determine how much each employee contributed to group discussions, made suggestions or pointed out problems.

Promotive vs. prohibitive voice

A clear pattern of motivating factors appeared, though Chen says they found some significant differences in the ways that employees decided whether to air positive ideas versus critical input.

For voicing positive (or promotive) input, the direct influencing factor is perceived efficacy, or whether one’s suggestions will be implemented. The main motive is agentic: to demonstrate competence and talent. And a person is most likely to voice positive ideas when she has a low power distance and perceives that the leader is willing to delegate.

For voicing critical (or prohibitive) input, the direct influencing factor is perceived risk, or whether speaking up will result in negative outcomes. The main motive is communal: to benefit the collective. A person is most likely to voice critical input when he has less concern for superficial harmony and perceives that the organization’s climate is amenable to speaking freely.

Free speech zone

Soliciting the open exchange of ideas is a hallmark of the modern, enlightened manager. But Chen says that employees need to see substantial evidence that a pro-voice climate is more than just talk.

A good start is empowerment, and the removal of risks to speaking one’s mind.

“Our research indicates that delegating power and responsibility is positively related to employee assessment of success in proposing new ideas and suggestions, and that such leadership practice is especially effective for people with a high power distance value who are more reluctant to speak up,” Chen says. “On the other hand, to encourage employees to voice concerns regarding dysfunctional practices, managers should focus on reducing the risks associated with such behavior.”

She notes that genuinely promoting free expression is becoming more important as organizations employ an increasingly diverse workforce. People from different national cultures bring with them varying baseline values of harmony and power distance. Getting a cross-cultural team to gel and perform at its best may depend on the removal of constraints to speaking freely.

“We think of our value orientations as indelible traits,” Chen says. “But they can change depending on the environment in which we live and work. If you are a person who naturally seeks superficial harmony but sees that everyone around you argues a point, then you may become more outspoken over time.”

She adds that organizational culture—especially a strong culture—can have a significant effect on individual behavior.

“If you want to hear honest input,” Chen concludes, “you have to empower, delegate, create an environment of low power distance.”

I Will Speak Up If My Voice Is Socially Desirable: A Moderated Mediating Process of Promotive Versus Prohibitive Voice” was published in the September 2015 Journal of Applied Psychology.

Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array of people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.