George Mason UniversitySchool of Business

Can Voicing Opinions at Work Hurt Your Career?

Written by Katherine Johnson on .

Voicing OpinionsIf you knew raising a concern to your manager would cause you to be viewed negatively, would you still take the risk of speaking up?

Kevin Rockmann, associate professor of management, and co-authors Ethan Burris and Yurianna Kimmons, University of Texas at Austin, researched how professional loyalty determines what problems employees speak out about and how managers respond to their concerns.

“We all have ideas. We all see things in organizations that could be improved, so we were interested in the factors that cause people to speak up and what they speak up about,” Rockmann said.

He explained that loyal professionals strongly identify with their profession. This prompts employees to speak up about the things they care about the most in regards to their profession. Rockmann and coauthors looked at three professions in their study, nurses, HR professionals, and real estate professionals trained as engineers or in real estate.

“We found that the source of your loyalty, or what we term identification, actually predicts what you speak up about. Depending on where your loyalties lie, it impacts the types of problems you see and the types of problems you speak up about,” he said.

For example, nurses may speak up to their managers about patient care or safety, but with ideas that had significant implementation barriers for the manager. “Because of the barriers the manager may not be very receptive. The managers were actually seeing the ideas and the people negatively when they would voice about things that did not take these barriers into account,” Rockmann said, adding that managers struggle to implement ideas which contain many barriers.

“The employees may in fact be penalized for speaking up in this way. Employees will end up silencing themselves because they know when they go to management nothing gets done or they’re turned away. They pick up on that negative feeling and think it’s not worth it,” he said.

The researches gave managers surveys to fill out about employees who speak up about issues related to their profession, finding that “without even knowing that they were doing it, they were not as receptive to ideas and they were rating the employees more negatively.”

The organizational challenge suggested by this research is how to support strong professionals who voice their opinions with managers who may not be immediately receptive to such ideas.

Rockmann suggested this could be accomplished through feedback, communication, and socialization. Organizations also need to realize that managers without proper training may fail to see employees’ concerns as “real problems, and that creates conflict and bad feelings. Managers need to do a better job of understanding, not just what their employees care about, but the professional attachments that their employees have.”

Overall, managers should remember what it was like to be in the position of their employees.

“Too often people step into that manager frame of mind and forget what life is like for the professionals that they’re managing. If you’re going to be an effective manager and you’re going to motivate and lead others, you have to keep one foot in that profession and really understand what they’re doing while you’re trying to solve the problems of the organization.”