Business Psychology

Article No. 337
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

In the Presence of Power

New research exposes a thought process that stifles employee contributions.

If you want to be the smartest person in the room, call a meeting of your subordinates. If you want to tell the funniest jokes, tell them to people who report to you. If you want to be the most knowledgeable person about the business you are in and all aspects of it, limit your conversations to people whose performance evaluations you fill out. These are realities of leadership, and many business owners find them pleasurable, but there is a danger. You could come to believe that you really are the smartest, funniest, and most knowledgeable person in the room.

Most business owners resist the seduction. They don't hire dumb people. They don't need people to cover their eyes and ears to avoid noticing problems. They do need the insights, ideas, and best efforts of all their people if their businesses are to thrive, and they expect their employees to make full use of the brains God gave them.

Wouldn't it be nice if they did?

There are many factors that stand in the way of a full contribution, and a good part of the art and science of management involves clearing away handicaps, stimulating best efforts, and focusing those efforts on useful goals. Management research seeks to inform this task.

James Detert from Cornell University is interested in the handicaps that stand in the way of employee contributions, and he recently completed a series of studies that examined beliefs employees hold that prevent them from making one contribution that we depend upon them to make: speaking up to us when they recognize inefficiencies, mistakes, and opportunities for improvement that we have missed. Detert calls this voice, and employee beliefs about voice involve us.

By the time people appear at our doors ready to work, they've already had a lifetime of experience with authorities. Parents tell them to eat their vegetables and go to bed, teachers tell them to stay after school and keep silent until they raise their hands, and coaches tell them they have two left feet and send them to the bench to cool them off. Through vicarious experience and trial and error learning, people form beliefs that guide their decisions about using voice with all authorities, and that includes us. Detert probed these employee beliefs about voice in a series of in-depth interviews with 190 working adults, and he found five beliefs that repeatedly appeared in the interview notes. All are self-protective. All assume the boss is dangerous and should not be provoked.

The first assumes that current procedures were devised by the boss and any suggestions for improvement will be viewed as a personal criticism. The second belief holds that solid data is needed before speaking up is safe. Proposed solutions must completely solve the problem. Questions that arise must be answered fully. The third and fourth beliefs involve speaking up in the presence of others. If someone of higher rank than the boss is present, then using voice will be seen as insubordinate and bypassing the chain of authority. If people from outside the work group are present, then speaking up will be embarrassing to the boss and leave him/her unprepared for follow-up questions and comments. Voice in these settings may be viewed as challenging, contradicting, or exposing the boss. The final belief is fear of negative career consequences, i.e. there will be retribution, and advancement will be stopped.

Typically, when people find themselves in situations in which speaking up could be helpful, their beliefs about doing so automatically prevents it. There is no conscious thought, no decision. It just feels uncomfortable to speak up, so they don't. They let us keep making mistakes and missing opportunities. This is both a bad thing and a good thing.

It's bad because it happens quickly. The moment comes and goes. The opportunity is lost. It's good because you can call attention to it and force the belief out into the open where people can apply some common sense to it. When this happens, you can prevent these beliefs from working automatically to stifle voice. This isn't easy to do, and Detert is not optimistic that you can or will do it, but the alternative isn't very appealing.

What to do?

If you want to strengthen a behavior, reward it. That's true of job tasks, and it's true with voice, too. Explicitly encourage voice, challenge these unexamined beliefs, and reward employee efforts to use voice to help your business. Get these beliefs out into the light of day. Examine the unconscious reasoning that follows from these beliefs and the decisions to keep silent that follow from them. Tell people you want to know what they see. You may be surprised at what they say.

Reference: Detert, James R. and Amy Edmondson (2011) Implicit Voice Theories: Taken-for-Granted Rules of Self-Censorship at Work. Academy of Management Journal, 54(3).

© Management Resources

Back to home page