Cultures of silence

Sut I Wong

A study of 33 countries shows why employees don’t speak up.

Across the world, media reports and research show that unethical practices, errors, safety issues and inefficacies endure because employees do not share their views, questions, ideas and concerns.

Recent examples include fraud in the automotive industry, harassment in the entertainment industry, misconduct in law enforcement, abuse of children in educational institutions, and abuse of elderly people in caring and religious institutions.

There are four broad reasons why employees choose to keep quiet.

  1. The fear of negative career effects from speaking up. Studies show some people worry that they will be labelled as troublemakers by superiors or that speaking up will damage important relationships. Remaining silent due to fear comes at a price in the form of increased stress, exhaustion, and a negative outlook on oneself and the world.
  2. The belief that speaking up won’t make a difference. Some employees keep quiet because they don’t believe leaders and others are interested in what they have to say or are responsive to it. Like their colleagues who remain silent because of fear, these employees are likely to experience increased negative emotions such as stress and exhaustion.
  3. The desire to protect superiors or colleagues or avoid embarrassing them. This silence motivation is different because it is often driven by positive emotions and the intention to benefit others. At the same time, it does not exclude suffering from subsequent negative emotions from not speaking up, such as shame, sadness, and fear.
  4. The desire to gain an advantage. This involves relatively selfish motives, including the intention of protecting a knowledge advantage or avoiding additional workload.

Research has shown that culture can be an important factor in why people choose to remain silent at work. In a new study, we look at how workplace silence differs across 33 different countries.

Culture matters, not countries

One of our main findings is that there are no typical countries in which employees are more silent or less silent.

However, there can be significant differences between subcultures and regions, as well as between different socio-economic groups within a country. For instance, in societies where older and male employees have a higher status, the barrier to overcome silence is higher for young women.

Power distance causes more silence – but not due to fear

Nevertheless, we find that silence is more likely to occur in cultures which accept status differences and rely on established structures, and less likely to occur in cultures where collective efforts are ingrained in societal practices.

People in high power distance societies such as China or Mexico tend to not challenges hierarchies by expressing their concerns to more powerful people.

Previous research has suggested this is because employees fear the consequences of speaking up. However, our findings suggest that power distance is not associated with remaining silent due to fear of saying something that could offend powerful people.

Rather, people in high power distance societies tend towards conformity, passive acceptance, and the avoidance of conflicts. They may also find a trust in hierarchy, positions and institutions to be comforting.

Safe workplaces are key – not increased assertiveness

Members of assertive cultures, who have a higher tendency to be assertive, confrontational, and aggressive in their relationships with others, are willing to engage in conflict, speak up, defend and act on their own interests.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, we find that increased assertiveness is not the way to combat employee silence.

In assertive cultures, the tendency of having higher levels of confrontation in the workplace can also create a threatening work context if voicing out can come with a cost. This can lead employees to think twice about whether challenging the status quo is worth the hassle.

The way to encourage employees to speak freely is therefore to build safe working contexts, where an emphasis on learning is in focus.

Source: Knoll, M, Götz, M, Adriasola, E, et al. International differences in employee silence motives: Scale validation, prevalence, and relationships with culture characteristics across 33 countries. J Organ Behav. 2021; 42: 619– 648.

Published 4. June 2021

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