Why employees consciously withhold important feedback - IEDP
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Why Employees Consciously Withhold Important Feedback

NYU Stern's Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison – on how ‘power perceptions’ and ‘fear of reprisals’ inhibit feedback


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When employees consciously withhold potentially important suggestions or concerns from those who may be able to act on that information, it can have serious implications for organizational performance.

Modern organizations try hard to achieve the nirvana of safe, friendly workplaces with open communication and minimized hierarchies. The reality remains however, that as soon as a business, charity or any other organization starts to grow beyond a handful of people working in a single room, systems and processes need to be put in place to make them work.

Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison – NYU Stern

– Vice Dean of Faculty
– ITT Harold Geneen Professor in Creative Management
– Professor of Management and Organizations

Professor Morrison's research focuses on different ways in which employees behave proactively at work, the conditions that motivate and enable such behaviour, and how various types of proactive behaviour both facilitate career success and improve organizational effectiveness.

Professor Morrison will be teaching on the upcoming Leadership Training for High Potentials this Spring.

Multiply this tens, hundreds and thousands of times over for ever-bigger organizations and you quickly arrive at structures which are very process-oriented and hierarchical despite best intentions.

A study by NYU Stern professors Elizabeth Morrison and Kelly See highlights that it is still very common for employees to remain silent about important issues they encounter at work, and attributes this in part to ‘power perceptions’ and ‘fear of reprisals’. The failure of employees to speak up about issues and concerns has in certain instances been catastrophic. The authors cite examples “such as the implosion of Enron, the crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia, and the faulty ignition switch debacle at GM. In each case, there were people who were aware of serious issues or problems, but they failed to speak up and the situation escalated.”

For all organizations the costs of not receiving and incorporating employee views can have a negative impact, even if they are not disastrous. Morrison says “research shows that those leaders who do not listen to advice often make worse decisions.”

In conversation with IEDP, Professor Morrison explained that she and Kelly See had previously studied the ‘psychology of power’ from the other side – how the feeling of power that people gain when they achieve leadership roles makes them ‘less open to upward input.’ Put another way; as they gain power, leaders can become less receptive to feedback from their direct reports and below. This new research explores the issue from the other side: ‘self-censorship’. Why do employees refrain from sharing concerns about performance-related issues or misconduct?

Morrison and See, with Caitlin Pan of SIM University, conducted three studies, starting with a laboratory experiment, then a survey study in a healthcare organization with nursing and administrative staff focused on how they communicated with physicians, and finally a broader study across diverse organizations. Across each of these studies, they found that employees are more likely to remain silent about issues of concern when they feel that they are lacking in power. However, this effect was mitigated when employees felt that their supervisor was open to input.

Morrison is clear that organizations will fare better, “with leaders who are better at enabling upward input… and who work to minimize hierarchical differences.” Essentially this requires breaking down the barriers, both perceived and real, between line managers and their staff and creating a culture of openness and exchange of ideas. Morrison suggests “…the use of language which indicates a flatter relationship than a hierarchical one.”

Interestingly, Morrison has found that she is living the issue, as she has recently become Vice Dean of Faculty at NYU Stern, a role that has influence amongst her former peers. “I am seeing how hard it is to actually do this rather than just teach it. It has helped me to be better in the role and has also been a humbling experience. It is often hard to bring to mind what the best practices are and not revert to hard-wired responses.” For others who are without this insight and so not aware of the impact their leadership role may have, Prof Morrison notes that they “should avoid assuming that people are saying what is on their mind, and consciously work on creating a climate of openness and psychological safety.”

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