St Anne, 8th century, from Faras – a city in Lower Nubia, present day Egypt (Courtesy: National Museum of Warsaw)
Ideas for Leaders #496

Encouraging Employees Who Stay Silent to Give Feedback

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Key Concept

Employees with a low sense of power are more likely to stay quiet about problems or concerns and less likely to come forward with suggestions or disagreements. Managers who can convince employees that they are genuinely interested in hearing from their employees can overcome their sense of powerlessness.

Idea Summary

Why do employees choose to stay silent instead of reporting a problem, expressing their differing opinion or offering suggestions? Past research has examined this issue from a variety of perspectives, including the role of fear in keeping employees silent. Elizabeth Morrison of NYU’s Stern School of Business, joined by her colleagues Kelly See of NYU Stern and Caitlin Pan of Singapore’s SIM University, use a set of three studies (one laboratory-based, two survey-based) to explore the role that one’s personal sense of power plays in employee silence.

The research team built on the approach-inhibition theory of power to advance their argument that employee silence is driven by a lower personal sense of power. According to this theory, a heightened sense of power activates the ‘behavioural approach system’ — in other words, the person is confident, ruled by positive emotions, and behaves with few inhibitions. A low sense of power has, intuitively, the opposite effect: the person has reduced confidence and optimism, is driven by anxiety and other negative emotions, is more aware of risks and threats, and is inhibited in social situations. The result is employee silence.

They also argued, however, that there was a mitigating circumstance that could overcome employee low sense of power: the extent to which the superior was approachable, genuinely open to input from others, and ready to thoroughly consider better ideas and suggestions — a characteristic labelled ‘target openness’ by the researchers. Target openness has been shown in earlier research to impact employee silence: employees are more likely to talk more freely to open-minded and interested leaders. The new research focused on demonstrating why target openness is so potent: because it reduces the impact of employee powerlessness. 

The research consisted of three studies. The first was a laboratory experiment in which participants were made aware of a performance problem. The researchers then manipulated the two factors — the participants’ psychological sense of power and their perceptions of target openness — to observe under what circumstances the participants were silent about the problem, and when they spoke up. The laboratory experiment was backed up by two field surveys, one focused on the employees of a large medical practice with several offices, and a second larger online survey polling more than 300 employees across a broad range of industries. (The latter survey was also more diverse, involving an equal number of males and females, than the first survey, which was mostly male.) Both studies asked participants to report on their sense of power, their supervisor’s openness and how often they had chosen to stay silent about concerns or suggestions.

The results of the three studies confirmed the researchers’ hypotheses that:

  • An employee’s personal sense of power determines to a great extent whether or not he or she will speak freely openly to superiors. A low sense of power led to silence.
  • Employees were more likely to overcome the reticence caused by the lower sense of power if superiors were more accepting and willing to listen. 

Business Application

This research has direct implications for managers:

  • Reduce employees’ feeling of low power. The first step is to make a concerted effort to reduce employees’ sense of powerlessness that pushes them to stay silent.  Coaching, authentic empowerment and consistent participative leadership are important elements of a culture that helps employees feel more powerful.
  • Convince employees that you are genuinely open to employee input. It’s not enough to say that “the door is always open” or any other pithy phrase of openness that is not backed by consistent behaviour on your part — behaviour that demonstrates appreciation for any time that employees approach you with either problems or concerns or with suggestions and opinions.
  • Put in systems that enable upward communication. Even with the best intentions or verbal encouragement, it is not always easy for employees to be convinced that it is safe to approach managers or superiors. Putting in place specific systems and procedures, from anonymous suggestion systems to formal grievance procedures, will help ensure that employees are communicating with management.
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Idea conceived

  • September 2014

Idea posted

  • March 2015

DOI number



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