Bosses’ reaction influences whether workers speak up: study

Psychological safety depends on managerial sensitivity, says expert

Bosses’ reaction influences whether workers speak up: study
Leaders should use language that encourages workers to offer more ideas in the future, even if their suggestions are not implemented, says a U.S. professor. Indypendenz/Shutterstock

Being shut down by a manager directly impacts whether a worker will open up again in the future, according to a new study.

And in an era where innovation rules, managerial sensitivity is key to fostering the exchange of ideas, according to Danielle King, assistant professor of psychology at Rice University in Houston.

“It’s critical for managers to be sensitive in the way that they deliver even a ‘no’ in this process of exchanging ideas at work,” she says. “If you want to continue to have people bring innovative ideas or help you detect errors, you do have to care about how you respond to those outcomes.”

Leaders should use language that encourages workers to offer more ideas in the future, even if their suggestions are not implemented, says King, lead author of “Voice Resilience: Fostering Future Voice After Non-Endorsement of Suggestions” in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

“We know that people want to be in environments where they feel safe and are likely to feel more comfortable staying and contributing in such an environment.”

Psychological safety also depends on managerial sensitivity, says Caroline Power, CEO of Sensitivity Training Canada in Toronto.

“It is essential for people leaders in organizations to be mindful of the need to create a workplace culture and a workplace environment that supports the psychological safety of everybody who's there, regardless of their level in the organization,” she says.

“The way that employee suggestions are responded to is one important input into that culture that we create.”

Employee involvement

King led two studies at Rice University to reach her conclusions.

The first study saw 197 participants respond to a survey detailing a supervisor’s rejection of an idea, including adequacy of the leader’s response and subsequent feelings from the worker.

The second study involved 223 students filling out two surveys where they envisioned themselves as marketing interns receiving a variety of negative responses from their superiors.

Responses shared sensitively led to employees opening up again, says King.

“We assessed different forms of what makes an explanation adequate. Across both studies, it was only the sensitivity of the message that actually affected whether or not people felt safe… [and] that safety directly affected future intentions.”

The results highlight the practical importance of providing sensitive explanations for why employee suggestions cannot be embraced, she says.

“It may be valuable to help employees understand that extenuating circumstances sometimes prevent implementation of potentially good ideas. It also would be useful to provide justification for why complete explanations cannot be revealed for strategic or confidentiality reasons.”

However, sensitivity doesn’t mean managers can never say no to a poor idea, says Power.

“At some point, leaders do need to make decisions that may not necessarily incorporate everything that employees [offer],” she says. “But if [we never] take any of what’s suggested, we set ourselves up for failure and for resistance to change and for workplace environments that are not psychologically safe.”

“People are going to think, ‘I just won't bother, because they don't listen to me anyway. Or they shut me down.’ When employees provide less voice or less input into their workplace environment, then these employees are likely not going to want to support changes that come.”

All of this means managers will eventually receive less and less input from staff, says Power.

“To lead change effectively, we need to have employees feel like they are involved somehow in the change.”

Sensitivity training

HR professionals can contribute to fostering sensitive communication between managers and direct reports, says King.

“It would be useful for organizations to offer training and development for leaders on how to let employees down gently, while encouraging them to speak up in the future, teaching leaders how to deliver those messages in a way that maintains the relationship.”

Managers need to understand that their reactions have a direct effect on how safe workers feel — an emotion that directly affects organizational success, she says.

It could be as simple as considering the employee’s perspective when they are sharing an idea, says King.

“This is risky for employees. It’s not always easy, so it matters how they respond, because the other person is also potentially in an uncomfortable context,” she says.

“This could be a mutually beneficial exchange where they receive ideas, and then they give support, encouragement, care and consideration as an exchange, versus… taking from employees the best ideas and harshly or quickly rejecting the others.”

Sensitivity is often a misunderstood soft skill, says Power.

“It is a skill that that leaders — over time, and from time to time — need to refresh themselves on,” she says. “What are other organizations in this sector — in this geography — finding that are some of the emerging shifts that are changing the dynamics of work?”

HR can develop this soft skill in managers by helping them understand that “how” they complete their tasks matters, says Power.

“The ‘what’ is critical, no question,” she says. “But if you're not able to work with people, if people don't want to be led by you… you're going to be less effective in the workplace.”

This is of greater importance for people leaders who have spent the bulk of their careers in technical functions, says Power.

“Regardless of what our intention is, if the impact on a person individually or a group or the organization overall, is one that is not working, each of us has a responsibility to shift what we're doing.”