Hearing voice and silence during stressful economic times

Publication Date10 Aug 2012
AuthorFrancine Schlosser,Roxanne Zolin
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour
Hearing voice and
silence during stressful
economic times
Francine Schlosser
Odette School of Business, University of Windsor, Windsor, Canada, and
Roxanne Zolin
QUT Business School, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia
Purpose – It is ironic that in stressful economic times, when new ideas and positive behaviors
could be most valuable, employees may not speak up, leading to reduced employee participation,
less organizational learning, less innovation and less receptiveness to change. The supervisor is the
organization’s first line of defense against a culture of silence and towards a culture of openness. The
purpose of this paper is to ask what helps supervisors to hear prosocial voice and notice defensive
Design/methodology/approach – The authors conducted a cross-sectional field study of 142 supervisors.
Findings – The results indicate that prosocial voice is increased by supervisor tension and trust in
employees, while defensive silence is increased by supervisor tension but reduced by unionization of
employees and trust in employees. This indicates that, as hypothesized by others, voice and silence are
orthogonal and not opposites of the same construct.
Research limitations/implications – The data are measured at one point in time, and further
longitudinal study would be helpful to further understand the phenomena.
Practical implications – This research highlights the potential for supervisors in stressful
situations to selectively hear voice and silence from employees.
Social implications – This research also has implications for supervisors who work in a unioniz ed
environment. Although seemingly counter-intuitive, there is a value to employee unionization in terms
of either reducing the level of actual defensive silence, or at least reducing supervisors’ perceptions of
defensive silence.
Originality/value – The paper adds to our knowledge of prosocial voice and defensive silence by
testing supervisors’ perceptions of these constructs during difficult times. It provides valuable
empirical insights to a literature dominated by conceptual non-empirical papers. Limited research on
silence might reflect how difficult it is to study such an ambiguous and passive construct as silence
(often simply viewed as a lack of speech). The paper contributes also to trust literatu reby identifying
its role in increasing supervisor’s perceptions of prosocial voice and reducing perceptions of defensive
Keywords Employees participation, Employees relations, Employees behaviour, Trust, Voice,
Silence, Positive coping, Management attitudes, Recession
Paper type Research p aper
Employees use silence and voice to signal their willingness or unwillingness to become
involved in organizational decisions and actions (Pinder and Harlos, 2001). Voice and
silence are also related to organizational citizenship behaviors (Van Dyne and LePine,
1998; Whiting et al., 2008). In general voice is proposed to have positive effects, while
silence, although ambiguous, is often noted for its negative effects. Otherwise called
the deaf effect (Cuellar et al., 2006) or the mum effect (Smith et al., 2001) defensive
silence is self-protection at its most detrimental, and akin to “fiddling while Rome
burns.” Therefore it is ironic that in hard economic times, when new ide as and positive
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Employee Relations
Vol.34 No.5, 2012
pp. 555-573
rEmeraldGroup Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/01425451211248569
Hearing voice
and silence
behaviors could be most valuable, employees may not speak up, leading to reduced
employee participation, less o rganizational learning, less inn ovation and less
receptiveness to change.
Van D yn e et al. (2003) propose that defensive silence is motivated by fear and self-
protection. In contrast they propose that prosocial voice is motivatedby cooperation and
is “other-orientated.” Both behaviors are proactive, as opposed to passive. Therefore,
although defensive silence and prosocialvoice are considered to be orthogonalconstructs
(Van Dyne et al., 2003) theyare likely to have different antecedents and they could have
opposite effects.
The supervisor is the organization’s first line of defense against a culture of silence
and toward a culture of openness. Vakola and Bouradas (2005) found that supervisors’
attitudes to silence were the strongest predictor of silence behavior followed by top
management attitudes and communication opportunities. They also found a ne gative
relationship between silence behavior and organizational commitment and job
satisfaction. Therefore it is important for the supervisor to recognize when employees
are contributing voice or silence to the organization’s dialogue. But in times of
increased pressures, could difficult contexts, strained relationships and high-tension
influence the supervisor’s ability to detect employee voice and silence? Supervisors
may become so tense that they become deaf to employees – to the point where
employees hesitate to express their own opinions and dissatisfaction (Pinder and
Harlos, 2001; Peirce et al., 1998). This research asks what helps supervisors to hear
prosocial voice and defensive silence?
Hirschman (1970, p. 30) defined voice as “any attempt at all to change, rather than to
escape from, an objectionable state of affairs.” Voice is also widely considered to
include “speaking up” behavior when employees make constructive suggesti ons for
change (e.g. Van Dyne et al., 2003). This type of prosocial voice involves being a “good
soldier” and taking personal risk for the good of the organization (Organ, 1988; Van
Dyne et al., 2003).
In contrast, defensive silence is defined as “intentional and proactive behavior that
is intended to protect the self from external threats” (Schlenker and Weigold, 1989; Van
Dyne et al., 2003, p. 1367). Some researchers focus on the motivation of the employee for
remaining silent (e.g. Glauser, 1984; Bies, 2009; Parker and Collins, 2010). In contrast
our study builds upon other previous research (Detert and Burris, 2007; Morrison and
Milliken, 2000; Vakola and Bouradas, 2005) to better understand the role of the
supervisor in encouraging or discouraging employee voice.
Milliken et al. (2003) have noted the need to study the organizational context in
which voice and silence develops. They describe the spread of silence and the
importance of relationships. The justice literature has linked voice to the presence of
due process procedures that enhance justice judgments and facilitate employee
participation in decision making (e.g. Bies and Shapiro, 1988). Cons equently, our study
examines multiple levels of influence from contextual factors, suc h as the employee’s
union participation while controlling fo r organizational morale, to the supervisor’s
level of tension and use of positive coping behaviors, and concluding with the
supervisor’s trust of employees.
We respond to Edwards and Greenberg (2009), who in their conclusion to their
recent edited book on voice and silence in organizations, note the need for research
with practical relevance to decision makers, conducted in a field setting, that will
augment and clarify the existing experimental and conce ptual research on voice
and silence.

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