Employees who dream of becoming leaders do not speak up about problems at the workplace

Mirha Sunagic

Do your employees speak up when they disagree about changes at work? Or when problems arise? Not if they have aspirations of becoming a manager or are dissatisfied with their career development.

BI RESEARCH: Management

Even the best organizations experience problems and objectionable situations from time to time.

It is not always the leaders who discover it first. They are totally dependent on employees who discover problems daring to speak up. The organization cannot change unwanted situations before it is too late unless someone blows the whistle.

However, you cannot take for granted that your employees will speak up when a problem arises, when they disagree or that they take up issues or express criticism.

High ambitions, silent employees?

As part of her doctoral project at BI Norwegian Business School, Mirha Sunagic wanted to find out whether ambitious employees hold back out of consideration for their own career development.

She interviewed 21 employees at a major public enterprise that were undergoing significant change processes during her project. She also interviewed six of those employees' supervisors. Sunagic has also been a fly on the wall at department meetings and has read and analysed many written sources.

One thing the employees she interviewed had in common was that they often took on extra roles at the organization. They had high ambitions and did more than expected to fulfil them.

Many of the employees who Sunagic interviewed disagreed to some extent with management's views on the need for and vision behind the changes that were occurring. Did they speak up?

The silent, and those ones who speak up

The researcher found that the willingness to speak up about problems at the workplace depends on the type of aspirations an employee has for his or her career.

She divided the interviewees into two groups:

  1. The first group contained those who had leadership ambition.
  2. The second group consists of the professional experts. Their competence was already recognised and their ambition was further development within their particular field of expertise.

The experts never hesitate in speaking up when problems arise, or if they disagree on an issue. They think their leaders want to hear their opinions, even if they are critical.

As a point of departure, the aspiring leaders agreed that is was a good idea to speak up when one disagreed. However, they changed their tone when Sunagic talked with them about their ambitions of becoming a leader.

"As soon as they began to talk about what they wanted for the future – to be a leader – they said they did not want to stir up trouble about the change processes adopted by the organization, or other decisions by executive management," Sunagic contends.

Ambitious employees feel they will be punished if they express criticisms. They fear that they may fall out of favour and lose the manager's support, destroying any opportunity they had of climbing the career ladder and thus being passed over for a promotion.

"That results in silence and listening instead of taking a critical look at current practice or scrutinising a manager's decisions.

The differences between the two groups of ambitious employees manifests itself even when they work at the same organization, in the same department and report to the same leader. Thus, it is not the general culture of speaking out which decides whether an employee actually does so.

Those who are not satisfied with the development of their career remain silent

Mirha Sunagic also conducted two surveys among the employees at one of Norway's largest consulting firms, at two different times.

Almost two hundred employees responded to both surveys. The current consultancy is known for attracting many of the best candidates from universities and colleges, often equipped with excessive self-esteem and high ambitions.

Not all the employees at the company were satisfied with their career development. They had expectations which were not met, so far. This proved to be relevant for whether they were critical or not.

Sunagic concluded that the more dissatisfied an employee is with his or her career achievements so far, the less likely they are to speak up about problems at work.

This applies across different positions at organizations, whether you have leadership responsibility or not, and regardless of how long you have worked at the organization.

Advice to leaders

Sunagic prepared four practical pieces of advice to leaders who want honest feedback from their employees, including criticism:

  1. Leaders should familiarise themselves with their employees' career goals and career satisfaction. This can be the key to knowing who they should consult if they want honest feedback, including criticism.
  2. Leaders should be careful to consult the employees who long for significant role change, such as those who want to become leaders for the first time in their career.
  3. It may be most advantageous to consult employees who are satisfied with their career development so far.
  4. Leaders have a responsibility to encourage all employees to speak about when problems arise, and create a safe framework in which to do so. Leaders are important role models. What you do is just as important as what you say. Leaders can be honest and speak up about own problems at the workplace, demonstrating to their employees that this behaviour is acceptable.


  • Mirha Sunagic (2017): Aspirations and Daring Confrontations: Investigating the Relationship between the Employees’ Aspirational Role-Identities and Problem-Oriented Voice. Series of dissertation 14/2017. BI Norwegian Business School.
  • This informative article was published on 27 May 2019, in the online newspaper, www.research.no.

Published 3. June 2019

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