Organizational Silence, Do`s and Don`ts

International Journal of Management and Humanity Sciences. Vol., 4 (1), 4541-4548, 2015
Available online at
ISSN 2322-424X©2015
Organizational Silence, Do's and Don'ts
Elham Kanani*, 2Dr. Gholam Reza Enayati, 3Dr. Masoud Taheri Lari, and 4Toktam Salari
1- M.A Student of Public Management, Azad University of Mashhad
2- Professor of Azad University of Mashhad
3- Professor of Azad University of Mashhad
4- M.A Student of Public Management, Azad University of Mashhad
*Corresponding author E-mail: el_kanani
Although the current literature in the field of organization and management
emphasizes on empowerment and create open communication channels, the results
of studies show that many employees complain that their organizations do not
support communication, information sharing and the explicit and implicit knowledge
and all these could be a reason for failure in goals and objectives of managers in
organizations. One of the major obstacles to the success of the programs and goals
of the organization is lack of information, lack of trust and the lack of what scholars
have called “Organizational Silence”, that is, to refrain from expressing ideas,
opinions and information about organizational problems. Organizational Silence is a
common and widespread phenomenon in most organizations. Since the concept of
organizational silence is new and unfamiliar and it has been addressed less in human
resource management literature, this paper deals with explaining and investigating
this issue and it seeks to address the phenomenon of organizational silence and
organizational voice , compare them with each other, analyze the different types of
organizational silence and organizational voice, explain philosophical dimensions of
silence and its related perspectives, express managerial and organizational factors
contributing to organizational silence, enumerate the contents of silence in the
organization and describe the causes and consequences of the its creation. This
paper is of an applied research type and its methodology is analytical - descriptive
and based on library studies. Moreover, data collection is based on taking notes.
Keywords: Organizational Silence, Obedient Silence, Defensive Silence, Altruistic Silence,
Obedient Voice, Defensive Voice, Altruistic Voice
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Efficiency and the development of any organization largely depend on proper utilization of manpower. As
companies and organizations enlarge, this massive force naturally faces with more problems. Although
because employees are living under great financial pressure, they pay attention more to the economical
aspects of the work, gradually employees are interested in doing conceptual works and they demand greater
job autonomy in their work, so that they feel valued and if these employees face with some obstacles in their
job demands, in other words if they are ignored by their managers, they develop job frustration and isolation
in their organizations which in turn leads to phenomena such as organizational silence. In spite of the fact
that employees‟ silence turns to a common phenomenon in organizations, it is a concept which is not wellknown and little research has been done on it. Silence is affected by many organizational features. These
features consisting of decision-making processes, culture management processes and employees'
perceptions are factors affecting the silence (Dimitris and Vakola, 2007).
But two main factors that affect silence and are the cause of employees‟ silence in the organizations
 Managers‟ fear of negative feedback from employees in case it jeopardizes their interests and positions.
Intl. J. Manag. Human. Sci. Vol., 4 (1), 4541-4548, 2015
 Employees „perceptions of management implicit beliefs about them. These implicit beliefs contain certain
management thoughts.
Since employees only consider their own interests, organization management knows better than anyone
and wants the best for organization and that differences of opinion are inherently harmful issues to the
organization. Although these issues are management‟s beliefs and none of them may exist in the
organization, they create destructive emotions such as fear, anger and deceit in the staffs of organization
and eventually cause employees‟ silence (Slade, 2008). Organizational silence can reduce the effectiveness
of organizational decisions and change processes by restricting employees‟ statements and this is an issue
which all the organizations complain about it. Furthermore, this behavioral phenomenon prevents the
organizational effective development by negative feedback inhibition. Hence, organization is not capable of
reviewing and correcting the errors .Thus, paying attention to this common problem is of utmost importance
(Perlow, 2003).
Statement of the Problem
With regard to the issue that organizational silence is a new and unfamiliar subject in Iran scientific and
organizational communities and you can find few researches on this issue, this paper intends to define and
explain the concept of organizational silence and organizational voice by reviewing the history and literature
of organizational silence and investigate different types of silence and people‟s motives in presenting each of
them, so as to identify and classify organizational, managerial and individual factors effective in the
prevalence of organizational silence and its consequences in the organization and ultimately provide
solutions to reduce organizational silence.
Since the organizational silence can be an obstacle for expressing individuals‟ ideas and views in the
organization, identifying the effective factors on it and attempting to obviate them can facilitate staff‟s
expression of ideas and opinions, increase their power of creativity and naturally, companies pave the path
of growth, excellence and success more quickly with the use of employees‟ active and informed participation.
Organizational Silence
Pinder and Harlos (2001) define Organizational Silence as “staff„s refusal of stating behavioral, cognitive
and effective assessment about the situation of the organization”. Morrison and Milliken (2007) consider
organizational silence as a social phenomenon in which the staffs refuse to make their comments and
express their concerns about organizational problems. Silence is affected by many organizational features
including decision-making processes, culture management processes and employees' perceptions are
factors affecting the silence (18).
Presenting ideas (Organizational Voice) or refusing to present them (Organizational Silence) may seem
two contrasting activities from the behavioral point of view, since „silence‟ implies that one do not intend to
speak, while „voice‟ means presenting the existing problems and issues. However, the fact is that silence is
not necessarily a phenomenon at odds with the organizational voice. In fact, the difference between silence
and voice is not in „speaking‟ but in the people‟s motivations to refuse to provide information, ideas and
opinions. In this framework there are three types of motivation related to silence and voice: „Preventive
Behavior‟ based on submission and consent to anything, „Self- Protective behavior‟ based on fear and
„Altruistic Behavior‟ because of the interest in others and due to creating collaborative opportunities (Pinder
and Harlos, 2001). These three types of motivation lead to the three following types of silence or voice:
obedient silence, defensive silence, altruistic silence.
Obedient Silence
When people call someone silent, it usually means that person does not communicate actively (Grant,
2000). The resulting silence of this type of behavior is called obedient silence and it refers to the refusal of
providing ideas, information or comments on the submission and consent to any terms. Thus, obedient
silence is indicative of a preventive behavior which mostly has a passive mode rather than an active one
(Pinder and Harlos, 2001).
Defensive Silence
The reason for this type of silence is not individual‟s fear of presenting ideas. In fact, sometimes people
may refrain from presenting ideas, information, or views only because they intend to protect their situation
and status (self- protective motives). Defensive silence is an intentional and proactive behavior in order to
protect itself from external threats. However, this kind of silence, in contrast to obedient silence, refuses to
provide ideas, information and opinions as the best strategy at the right time (Avery and Quinones, 2002).
Intl. J. Manag. Human. Sci. Vol., 4 (1), 4541-4548, 2015
Altruistic Silence
It is based on the literature of organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) and it implies the refusal of
expressing ideas, information and views related to the work with the intention of benefiting other individuals
in the organizations and based on altruistic, collaborative and cooperative motivations. Altruistic silence is
deliberate and non- passive which primarily focuses on others. Like organizational citizenship behavior,
altruistic silence is a rational behavior which cannot be carried out through the dictates of the organization
(Podsakoff et al., 2000). These three types of motivation in organizational silence and organizational voice
along with some examples are shown in table 1(Zarei, Matin et al., 2011, 77).
Table 1. Examples of Specific Types of Silence and Specific Types of Organizational Voice
Type of employee‟s motivation
employee‟s silence
employee‟s voice
Intentional expression of ideas,
Intentional refusal of expressing ideas,
Information and view related to work
information and views related to work
Preventive behavior
obedient silence
obedient voice
Based on submission, feeling
incapable of making change
Refusal of expressing ideas due to
expressing supporting ideas based on
submission to the conditions
submission to the condition
due to
Maintaining your ideas because of
low self-efficacy in making change
low self-efficacy in making change
defensive voice
Self-defensive behavior
Defensive silence
based on fear
Examples: refusal of presenting ideas
Express the ideas that diverts one‟s
Feelings of anxiety and peril
due to problems arising from fear
attention because of fear
Concealing the truth in order to protect oneself
Expressing the ideas that turn
Altruistic behavior
Altruistic silence:
individuals‟ attention in order to
Based on the collaborative
protect oneself against others
sense of altruism
Refusing to express confidential information
Altruistic voice
because of collaboration and cooperation
Protection of proprietary knowledge
presenting solutions to the problems
for the benefit of organization
based on cooperation and collaboration
expressing efficient ideas for making
change and benefit the organization
Source: (zareei, Matin et al., 2011: 77)
Although organizational silence generally refers to intentional refusal of presenting ideas, information and
views, its nature will be different due to the motivation which exists in the employee for organizational
silence. Sometimes, silence is due to individual‟s submission to any condition, sometimes it can be due to
fear and conservative behavior and sometimes it is because of creating opportunity for others and their
views. (Zaree, Matin et al. 2011, 77)
Effective Factors in the Emergence of Organizational Silence
From the effective factors in the emergence of organizational silence we can refer to environmental and
organizational variables and some individual variables (Figure 2). Base on this figure two main factors
leading to the silence of employees are:
 Managers‟ fear of negative feedback from employees because it jeopardizes their interests and positions.
 Employees perception of management implicit beliefs about them. These implicit beliefs include some
management beliefs, based on the fact that employees only consider their own interests, therefore
management of organization knows better than all and wants the best and that these differences of opinion
are inherently harmful issues to the organization. Although these issues are management‟s beliefs, they
may not be true to any organization. However, they create destructive emotions such as fear, anger and
deception in the organization‟s employees and eventually cause employees‟ silence (Slade, 2008).
Intl. J. Manag. Human. Sci. Vol., 4 (1), 4541-4548, 2015
Figure 2. Effective Factors in the Emergence of Organizational Silence
The causes underlying implicit beliefs can be a series of organizational and environmental conditions and
also some individual variables. These beliefs, along with fear from management, lead to predictable variety
of structures and managerial and organizational policies which prevents the upward flow of information. As it
is clear from figure 1, these structures and methods helps the development of what is called “atmosphere of
silence”, widely shared perception among employees that talking about problems or issues is useless or
dangerous. When there is such an atmosphere, employees‟ main reaction in organization will be silence
rather than expressing ideas and opinions. The possibility that such circumstances occur as well as the
strength and development of such an atmosphere, will depend on staff‟s group work for sense creation.
(Morrison and Milleken, 2000)
Components of Organizational Silence
 Management factors
 Management practices
 Senior Manager illness
 Fear of negative feedback
 Some degree of demographic differences between employees and senior managers
 Creation of an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion in the organization
 Organizational factors
 Career Plateau
 Organizational structures and policies
 The lack of a feedback mechanism from the top down
 Group factors (social)
 Compliance with the group (Conformance)
 Distribution of responsibilities
 Group Seminar
 Individual factors
 Maintenance of the current position
 Mistrust and cynicism to the manager (Cheraghchi Haram, 2011)
Employees’ Voice and its Different Types
Comprehensive review of literature related to the voice has described this concept as verbally expressed
ideas, information and views about working with positive collaborative incentives in a passive, positive and
altruistic way in the organization (Frese et. al, 1999).
Intl. J. Manag. Human. Sci. Vol., 4 (1), 4541-4548, 2015
Just as the presented three -elemental framework about silence, there are three types of voice including
altruistic voice based on altruistic motivation, defensive voice based on self-protective motivation and
obedient voice based on submission and consent to the present situation (Zhou and George, 2001).
Altruistic Voice
The vast majority of researchers‟ comments about voice consider it as a behavior with positive intention.
Van Dyne and Lepin (1998), by considering altruistic voice as a form of OCB, describe it as a behavior which
emphasizes on expressing evolutionary opinions driven by the motivation to grow and improve and based on
collaborative motivations instead of criticizing the situation. Therefore, this special type of voice is an
intentional, passive and altruistic behavior. This behavior basically emphasizes on benefiting organization
and other people. Altruistic voice just as altruistic silence requires awareness and insight and may not be
required at any time by the organization. In fact, speaking candidly and giving proposals for change, may be
one of the organizational citizen behaviors; because this type of behavior requires personal risk. This is
because most of employees in the organization (especially those who are in power) are satisfied with the
way they are in and prefer to maintain their current position. Thus, altruistic voice is not necessarily
considered a positive phenomenon by its recipients (Nemeth and Staw, 1997).
Defensive Voice
For describing defensive voice, we get help from the concept of obedient silence (silence because of fear)
and defensive silence (silence based on incapability in creating differences in the present situation) which
respectively resemble obedient voice and defensive voice. Defensive voice is based on self- protection. The
incidence of this type of behavior requires less personal responsibility and decision-making without any risk.
Therefore, if people are frightened of punitive consequences due to discussing the problems of organization,
they generally show some self-protective behaviors. These behaviors include some self-protective strategies
such as changing the direction of the attention, blaming others, apologizing, justifying and refusing in which
voice occurs as a reaction to feelings of fear and intimidation. With respect to these features, defensive voice
means expressing ideas, information or opinions related to work -based on fear- with the aim of selfprotection (Morrison and Milliken, 2000).
Obedient Voice
With respect to its causative motives, obedient voice implies expressing ideas, information and opinions
base on submission. This type of voice is a non-collaborative behavior based on this feeling in the individual
that he is not capable of making change in situations. Therefore, this type of voice leads to the emergence of
statements of approval and support of the status quo with respect to the proposed incentive (Avery and
Quinones, 2002).
Just as the two previous voices, this voice is also base on intentional expression of ideas, information and
opinions related to work. However, its difference with the last two voices is that it is less non- reactive (Van
Dyne 2003).
Organizational Silence Consequences
Organizational silence consequences on organizational decision-making and change processes
In general, organizational silence affects the quality of decision-making, organizational change and
employees‟ reactions and behavior (Morrison and Milliken, 2000).
One of the most important consequences of organizational silence is its effect on organizational decisionmaking. Vast researches on group decision-making indicates that the quality of organizational decisionmaking depends on consideration and investigation of conflicting views in the senior management teams
which both has a positive effect on the quality of organizational decision-making and on organization‟s
performance. These factors together suggest that organizational silence reduces the effectiveness of
decision-making and organizational change processes due to limiting data that are available to decision
makers. Moreover, silence causes the analysis of ideas and decision alternatives. In that case there is little
possibility in having a comprehensive analysis for decision-making processes. This event itself causes failure
or reduction of the effectiveness of organizational change processes and decision-making processes
(Nemeth, C. J., 1997).
Another way in which silence has a negative impact on organizational change and organizational
development is blocking negative feedback pathways and hence reducing the organization's ability to detect
and correct errors. Without negative feedback, mistakes will continue and even become worse, since
corrective actions are not done in the time required. In this case, silence means the organization lacks the
capacity of what Argyris (1997) called “double loop learning” which contains questioning and revising policies
and objectives.
Intl. J. Manag. Human. Sci. Vol., 4 (1), 4541-4548, 2015
Sometimes senior managers may not admit that they lack important information and consider silence as a
sign of consensus and success. Even in some cases if managers directly ask employees for their feedback,
employees may involve in the negative feedback filtering. Consequently, the feedback that the manager
receives may reflect what the employees think that management wants to hear and not the feedback which
is indicative of the facts and circumstances (Bies and Tripp, 1999).
Organizational Silence Consequences on Staff Behavioral Reactions and Emotions
Researchers believe that organizational practices which allow the employees to express their ideas
considered being positive by them since they cause employees to be considered as valued member of the
organization. Based on the opinion of Lind and Tyler(1988), employees feel worthless when they see
themselves and their colleagues cannot freely express their views. Studies show that these emotions cause
members of the organization reduce their commitment and trust. If employees feel that the organization
ignores them, they in turn will attach less value to the organization and have less confidence on the
organization. Consequences that can be derived from the undermining of trust and commitment are:
Reduced motivation and personal satisfaction, mental isolation and even the leaving of staff from the
In today's complex and changing world that there is too much competition between different communities
in order to achieve the latest technology, the most advantageous resources and the most experienced
manpower, human resources and especially creative individuals, entrepreneurs and owners of new ideas are
the most valuable organizational assets. Structures are changing and organizations and their human
resources are affected by different threats from which we can refer to “organizational silence” phenomenon.
If employees‟ lips are sealed, knowledge generation engine will stop working. When human resources as
the most important organizational capital silence, management must feel a great risk. No matter how silent
the provided atmosphere in organizations is, or in other words, supervisors‟ attitude and behavior leading to
reinforcing the employees‟ silence and there is not much communication opportunities for employees in
organization and also senior management attitude encourages silent behaviors, it causes organization‟s
employees often silence on issues and subsequently employees‟ job attitudes such as job satisfaction and
organizational commitment would be low.
 Establishment of an appropriate reward system for creative suggestions and comments.
 Establishment of a free –Tribune system without any stress, worry and fear of free expression of ideas.
 Identification of the capabilities and abilities of individuals and using them in executive affairs and decisionmaking.
 Reduction of organizational focus and delegation
 Recognition of individual and personality characteristics
 Forming public relations workshop and communication
 Development of regulations to support the views of staff
 Changing the organizational culture in order to achieve the learning organizations and organizational
learning situation.
 Establishment of a program to improve the management of human resources.
 Creation of job security for employees and reduction of atmosphere of fear of criticism.
 Creation of combined positive and negative feedback system.
 Establishment of staff training system to keep pace with world technology
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