Being able to speak up and share ideas at work is crucial for productivity. But, what makes employees decide to speak up and what makes them choose to be silent? And how does having a voice at work impact your well-being? As it turns out, using your voice and choosing to stay silent are two separate decisions. You can be contributing information but also holding information in at the same time. Both of these decisions have an impact on your wellness at work. Keep reading for more on the consequences of using your voice or holding back.
Using Your Voice at Work
Voice can be defined as the “discretionary communication of ideas, suggestions, concerns, or
opinions about work-related issues with the intent to improve organizational or unit functioning”. In other words, you choose to speak up to share your thoughts on how your workplace should operate. You might choose to use your voice in a meeting, to tell your team an idea you have. Or you may choose to use your voice in an interaction with your supervisor, to suggest a way that you might approach a new project. Any time you bring up something that’s on your mind, because you want to make your workplace better, you are exercising your voice.
There are two key features of voice that will help you to determine if you are using yours or not. First, voice is future-focused. So, you have to be making a suggestion about something that an individual or group might do at work that they aren’t already doing. If you are sharing thoughts about what someone already did, without suggesting something new that might address it, you aren’t exercising your voice. You might be sharing, but simply communicating is different than voicing something. Second, voice is change-oriented. If you are commenting that you think things are already going well, that isn’t voice. Again, it might be true and important to communicate, but it’s not the same as voicing something that will upset the status quo. Overall, just talking about things isn’t using your voice, even if plain communication is valuable at times.
Staying Silent at Work
Being silent at work isn’t the opposite of using your voice. You can speak up at times but also hold back at times. Or you might speak up about certain issues but not about others. That would mean you were exhibiting high levels of voice and high levels of silence. Silence is the “conscious withholding of
information, suggestions, ideas, questions, or concerns about potentially important work- or
organization-related issues from persons who might be able to take action to address those issues”. This means that you have something to share but you choose not to share it. Specifically, you are choosing not to voice it with folks who could change things. So, even if you’re gossiping about something at work, if you’re not telling those who could make a change, you’re still being silent.
Silence occurs because you are trying to prevent self-harm. This could be because you are afraid that voicing an issue could cause you to feel uncomfortable. You might also be afraid that others won’t like you anymore. Another fear could stem from concerns about getting punished for raising an issue. All of these worries are what might lead you to hide your true thoughts or ideas at work. Sometimes sharing your concerns can actually be risky, especially in teams that have low psychological safety. In that case, holding things in might seem like the more reasonable choice. If you’re currently withholding thoughts or concerns because you’re afraid of sharing them, you are exercising silence.
Voice, Silence, and Wellness
By now, you know whether or not you are exercising voice or silence and to what extent. Now, what is the impact? A recent meta-analysis has shown that both voice and silence are related to burnout. But, silence is much more strongly related to burnout than voice. This means that you have to address your silence if you want to be healthy in the long term. If you’re holding back your concerns, you might be likely to burn out over time. But, if you’re just staying quiet because you don’t have any ideas that you want to share, you are not likely to burn out because of that (e.g., low voice). Overall, if you have ideas or suggestions and you don’t feel safe to share them, your well-being will suffer.
The same meta-analysis showed that voice is increased when employees feel their suggestions will have an impact. Silence is decreased when employees feel psychologically safe. This means that you are more likely to share when you think people will take you seriously. You’re less likely to hold back when you think that sharing is not risky. So, if you’re on a team where you think your ideas will be heard and acted on, and where you feel safe to bring up concerns, that is ideal. If you’re leading a team, make sure to actually listen to your employees and act when they raise issues. You should also make it clear that you are willing to hear and consider concerns, even if they might go against the status quo. Finding a company with this culture will help you to stay healthy in the long-term! So, keep your eyes open for these kinds of organizations and try to get your foot in the door!