On the night of April 20, 2010, a massive explosion ripped through the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, releasing more than 130 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean. It was the biggest oil spill in U.S. history, and it might have been prevented had rig workers spoken up. A government report pointed to the failure of the rig team to ask an engineer about a problematic cement job as a key reason for the disaster.
Deepwater may be the most infamous example of employees staying silent, but those rig workers are not alone. Studies consistently show that employees are reluctant to talk to their bosses about issues of concern. One study suggests that 50 per cent of employees keep it zipped at work.
What’s going on here? And how can leaders encourage people to speak up with ideas, concerns, opinions, or just information? Those questions have been at the heart of a growing body of research over the past 10 years that has generally focused on two elements: employee attitudes about speaking up, and the situational factors that support or prevent it.
As helpful as that research is to understand why individual employees do or do not speak up, very little has looked at the issue in a team setting. One researcher who wants to change that is Kyle Brykman, who completed his PhD at Smith School of Business and is now an assistant professor of management at the University of Windsor.
“In general, we forget that we pick up so much information from social cues,” says Brykman. “So, if your manager shuts down your colleague after they try to voice a concern, you’re going to be wise to say to yourself, ‘Well, that tells me it’s not safe to speak up here.’ And that’s really what we found in our study.”