Speak Up! Why Voice Matters

2/4/2013 10:55:00 AM

New research sheds light on the result of employees speaking up at work, and how companies may benefit


James Detert, associate professor of management at Johnson at Cornell University, is a leading scholar on the phenomenon of “voice” — that is, speaking up to higher-ups to suggest changes or new ideas that are intended to improve the organization. His earlier research in this area, “Implicit Voice Theories: Taken-for-Granted Rules of Self-Censorship at Work” (co-authored with Amy Edmondson) was named 2011 Best Paper both by the Academy of Management Journal, and the Organizational Behavior Division of the Academy of Management.  Detert’s latest contribution, “When Does Voice Lead to Exit? It Depends on Leadership,” (co-authored with Elizabeth McClean and Ethan Burris) establishes some new focus areas for voice research. Its publication is forthcoming in the Academy of Management Journal.

“We’ve gone from analyzing the antecedents of voice (who speaks up or withholds, and why) to the outcomes of voice (for what individual and business outcomes does voice matter),” explained Detert. “Focusing on the outcomes of voice should help us determine the most effective leadership styles and employee behaviors.”

If you accept the premise that the best-run organizations are those that can find a way to solicit, incorporate, and improve on feedback from all employees (whom Detert calls the “eyes, ears, and brains” of an organization), voice research can be of profound importance. While nearly all leaders pay lip service to the value of voice, whether or not they really seek it, welcome it, and utilize it properly are open questions, Detert notes.

Detert’s research is expanding to consider how employees in places like India and China view and practice voice behavior to their bosses. He expects that the empirical findings will debunk at least some of the conventional view of voice as strongly and perhaps predominantly influenced by national culture conditioning.

“On some initial comparisons between Chinese and American respondents’ reported beliefs about speaking up, the means are quite similar,” Detert explained. “There are big variations across individuals within each country, but the distributions are fairly similar across the two countries on a lot of basic beliefs about the safety and appropriateness of challenging the boss to do something differently.” Detert suspects these findings, which will be further explored in upcoming work, may reflect the fact that some aspects of hierarchical communication are fairly universal and based on human nature. For example, angering higher status or higher power others seems to be something that the vast majority of humans (and the primates with which we share significant similarities) readily come to understand to be a generally risky proposition.

Detert is not only studying voice as a business scholar; he is also incorporating what he has learned into his pedagogy. His classes tend to include two basic forms of teaching around voice. First, Detert seeks to dispel misperceptions about why people speak up (or don’t) and what bosses and subordinates alike can do about it. For example, students typically assume that an employee’s perceived relationship with the boss is the prime antecedent of voice, whereas in fact the most important antecedent may be long-held employee beliefs about speaking up that have little to do with the current boss. Second, Detert helps students understand how to express their own voice more effectively when they are the speaker, and how to better solicit and make use of the voice of others when they are leading. 

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