Not many employees expect that fearing their boss may be part of their work experience. Yet that expectation might have better prepared scores of Atlanta school principals to work under Beverly L. Hall, the superintendent who “ruled by fear: Principals were told that if state test scores did not go up enough, they would be fired — and 90 percent of them were removed in the decade of Dr. Hall’s reign”.
It might also have better prepared an unnamed resident at a University of California hospital who noticed a problem with a fetal monitoring strip on a woman in labor. The resident feared contacting “the attending physician, who was notorious for yelling and ridiculing the residents”. The baby later died.
The incident illustrates the findings of a 2005 report by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses aptly called “Silence Kills”. However, this issue is not confined to health care. After charging General Motors with a record $35 million fine over failures to disclose a deadly ignition-switch defect, federal safety regulators also noted that “literally, silence can kill”.
While such dramatic outcomes might not extend to the average employee, they exemplify a paradoxical situation: although we live in the so-called ‘information age’, many employees do not share work-related ideas, insights, or knowledge with others in their organization, opting to remain silent instead. One likely motivation is to protect oneself from the possible backlash for voicing out opinions or just even making a suggestion. This fear-induced silence affects the bottom-line: because “employees withhold vital input out of fear,” CEB estimates that “nearly half of executive teams lack the information they need to manage effectively”.
So, who is to blame? When it comes to employee silence, practitioners and academics repeatedly mention two main culprits: abusive superiors and a work climate where employees fear speaking up. Yet, while accounts by practitioners brim with colorful illustrations, there is hardly any empirical research by academics on the readily conceivable argument linking non-physical (i.e., emotional) abuse by supervisors to employees’ fear and silence.
Why? One major reason is that academics used to view silence merely as the absence of speaking up. Aimed at changing this view, scholars recently noted that silence is better understood as its own behavior: keeping silent is something that one actively chooses to do. As such, the underlying motive for an employee’s silence may involve trying to protect others, resignation, or fear.
Given the two main culprits for employee silence, abusive supervisors and climates of fear, we examined both in our study on fear-based, or defensive, silence. In particular, we sought to show empirically that abusive supervision leads to fear reactions in employees who in turn would engage in defensive silence behaviors. Conceptualizing abusive supervision as sustained, hostile, and nonphysical behavior directed against subordinates, our analyses showed support for that effect. In other words, supervisors who ridicule, berate, manipulate, and otherwise emotionally abuse employees create fearful employees who withhold information in order to protect themselves.
Furthermore, we found a significant relationship between fear-based silence and employees’ perceptions of supervisors being abusive one year later. The implication is, then, that abusive supervisors get away with their behavior because subordinates remain silent. Thus, abusive supervision, fear, and silence create a vicious cycle. The more employees fear their supervisors, the more they remain quiet, and the more their supervisors engage in the behaviours that made employees fearful to begin with.
We also found that perceiving one’s immediate work environment as one permeated by fear enhances the tendency of employees to remain silent. For illustration, let us return to those American critical-care nurses mentioned above by way of a follow-up study. What was the situation for them five years later? “Silence still kills. Essentially, many clinicians still live in a culture of fear with respect to their ability to challenge a colleague or superior regarding patient safety issues”.
Unfortunately, UK nurses do not seem to fare much better. In the aftermath of the Stafford hospital scandal, the Chief Executive of the Royal College of Midwives, Cathy Warwick, told the Guardian: “We hear far too often from midwives who are genuinely petrified about raising the alarm bell over poor quality of care …. They fear that senior managers will come down on them hard simply for raising concerns”.
So, what is to be done? One mitigating factor we examined was how assertive employees rated themselves. As hypothesized, the effects we found were less negative for those employees who were more comfortable standing up and speaking out for their own interests and concerns. Yet, we doubt the solution to this problem is assertiveness training (although it might not hurt). It is likely that even the most assertive employee falls silent when speaking up does not produce change in the work environment or the behavior of superiors.
Which brings us to the role of management. While some, like hedge fund CEO Ray Dalio, strive to remove fear from their company’s culture, still too many managers and organizations ignore the issue, or worse, seem to think that abuse and fear are recipes for success (Amazon anybody?). The examples above suggest that when abuse and fear run rampant, both employees and organizations suffer. A better strategy for tapping the full potential of an organization’s human resources? Our research suggests to get rid of the fear and the jerks.
- This article is based on Suffering in silence: Investigating the role of fear in the relationship between abusive supervision and defensive silence, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 101(5), May 2016, 731-742.
- The post gives the views of its authors, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image credit: Public Domain
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Christian Kiewitz is a Professor of Management at the University of Dayton in Ohio, USA. His research topics include workplace aggression and the role of personality and emotions in the workplace. He is particularly interested in the factors that lead to abusive supervision in organizations.
Simon Lloyd D. Restubog is Professor of Management and Organizational Behavior and Lab Director of the Work Effectiveness & Leadership Lab (www.wellab.org) at The Australian National University. His research focuses on practically-relevant research such as psychological contracts in employment and educational contexts, destructive leadership, and barriers and supports to the career development of students, migrant workers and professionals in STEM-related occupations. Simon’s work has been published in top-tier journals in management and psychology.
Mindy Shoss is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Florida and is currently serving as a Professorial Fellow in the Centre for Sustainable Human Resource Management and Wellbeing at Australian Catholic University. Her research focuses on employee well-being, using it as a lens through which to examine leadership, counterproductive and abusive workplace behavior, adaptability, job insecurity, and the consequences of economic crises.
Patrick Raymund James M. Garcia is an Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Vermont’s Grossman School of Business. His research focuses on the antecedents, mechanisms, and consequences of workplace aggression and employee deviance. Alongside his research, Patrick also teaches courses on organizational behavior, leadership, and organizational change management for sustainability.
Robert L. Tang was the former Vice Chancellor for Academics at De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde in Manila, Philippines, from 2007 until he was appointed as Chancellor in May 2015. He is also a faculty member in the Human Resource Management Program of the School of Management and Information Technology. He conducts research and consulting work in the area of psychological contracts, leadership, and organizational change.