Are you afraid of speaking up at work? That is the topic of ongoing research reported in the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge. Quoting from their research paper (abstract here) Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School and James Detert from Penn State, the two researchers, made some interesting observations in this email interview.
While there are individual and contextual reasons why some people speak up more readily than others, the main reason why people do not speak up is “fear” – something that we inherited from our earliest ancestors. As the researchers point out: ” it seems we’re all hard-wired to overestimate rather than underestimate certain types of risk—it was better (for survival) to “flee” too often from threats that weren’t really there than to not flee the one time there was a significant risk. So, we’ve inherited emotional and cognitive mechanisms that motivate us to avoid perceived risks to our psychological and material well-being…Thus, fear of offending those above us is both natural and widespread.”
The interview talks about some ways to change a company culture so that people speak up more frequently. The reality is that changing a culture of hard-wired fear is very difficult. Add to that the fact that change hurts and it may be impossible to really change a company culture without also changing the fundamental hierarchical nature of companies.