Employees Often Hesitate to Speak Up in the Workplace. What Can We Do About It?

A Batten researcher is studying the complicated dynamics between workers and their managers.

A Batten researcher is studying the complicated dynamics between workers and their managers.
Graphic by Macy Brandon

The crew of Air Florida Flight 90 was preparing for takeoff when a junior officer noticed something wasn’t right.

In a recording from the cockpit on that snowy afternoon in 1982, you can hear the officer fumbling as he tries to call the flight captain’s attention to icicles forming on the plane’s wings.

The fact that his comments were ignored is nothing short of tragic — minutes after the plane’s takeoff from Washington National Airport, it crashed into the 14th Street Bridge and plunged into the icy Potomac River, killing 74 passengers and four motorists.

But what postdoctoral fellow Jieun Pai found especially significant about the incident was the junior officer’s clear discomfort with saying anything at all. Listening to his halting speech as he mentions the ice again and again, you can almost see his face flushing.

Pai, a researcher at the Batten School, had this and similar crash recordings in mind when she and three co-researchers came up with an idea to study the cause and impact of this paralyzing dynamic between “high-power” (e.g., the Flight 90 captain) and “low-power” (the junior officer) workers.

“When you hear the interaction with the low-power pilot, he knew the problem but spoke up too late,” Pai said. “Our research suggests that it’s hard for low-power people to speak up because they’re anxious about being evaluated poorly. It’s a structural problem, and fixing it is in the hands of high-power individuals and their organizations.”

To isolate the problem and test out fixes, Pai’s team drew on a concept she first encountered in an introduction to psychology class she took on a lark while she was a chemical engineering major at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

The concept is called attachment theory, and it posits that a stable and positive attachment between a developing child and their parent provides the child with the psychological security needed to proactively explore the world and problem-solve. The resulting attachment structure is a learned pattern of behavior that is triggered throughout a person’s life by similar stimuli.

“It determines not only how you relate to your parents, but also to your romantic partners and your boss,” Pai said. “When you’re with a boss who makes you feel [insecure], you react immediately, and it limits your ability to speak up.”

In some environments, like an airplane’s cockpit, that dynamic can have devastating consequences. But even in situations where the stakes aren’t as high, low-power employees need to feel comfortable pointing out problems and proposing new ideas.

Pai and her team wanted to know whether feeling securely attached to an authority figure at work — put simply, feeling like the boss has your back — could generate that kind of proactive behavior. The team conducted a series of studies to test this.

One of those studies looked at the behavior of 3,823 technicians across various factories in a single Fortune 500 manufacturing firm. Six months before the study, the firm had launched an online idea-gathering tool, but collected ideas from only 55 technicians.

To help the company prepare for a relaunch of the tool, the researchers distributed two different types of posters. In the factories that were part of the control group, the posters emphasized the value of employees’ unique perspectives and then asked them to submit ideas to make the company better. The factories in the test group got posters that made the same request, but instead emphasized the value of strong bonds between employees and managers.

In the end, 71 technicians in the experimental group submitted ideas, compared to just 45 technicians from the control group.

“It was really surprising because it was such a subtle intervention,” Pai said.

In another study, the researchers took a more direct approach. The 602 participants engaged in an idea-generating session with an invisible online partner who was ostensibly evaluating them and determining the bonus for their ideas.

Throughout the interaction, one group of participants received reassuring feedback from their online partner, while the other group received neutral or no feedback. Participants in the group receiving positive feedback reported feeling more secure and confident, and they gave twice as many suggestions to their partners.

“Neutral words like ‘we’ll see how you do on this exercise’ were not enough to make the person feel secure,” Pai said. “A manager has to actively show that they support their subordinates and have their back.”

Because many managers unfortunately don’t offer this kind of encouragement, Pai suggests that employees “diversify their sources” of attachment security. In other data collections, she’s found that low-power subjects who have secure relationships at home — and are primed to think about those relationships before the test—are usually more proactive.

“You might experience anxiety in the workplace, but by talking to your family, you may be able to resolve it better,” Pai said. “It might help you be more brave about speaking up.”

But, she cautions, the point of the research isn’t to place the onus on lower power employees.

“It’s already burdensome enough to be in a position of low power,” Pai said. “You can’t guess what a manager is thinking, so it’s distracting and time-consuming to have to worry about what this person thinks of you. Managers should be predictable and totally transparent—about both the goods and the bads—so employees can just focus on doing their jobs.”

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