Afraid to Speak Your Mind at Work? So Are Many of Your Colleagues

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At your weekly meeting, a manager asks for
feedback on the speakers she hired for your organization’s annual conference.
You thought they were disorganized and dull. But your manager might take that
criticism personally, so you keep your mouth shut.

Your supervisor sends an e-mail asking for
“data on our employees’ health benefits choices.” That could mean any
number of things, but because she’s busy and typically impatient when asked too
many questions, you try to interpret what she wants so you can get back to

Lack of communication—and miscommunication—may
be inevitable in the workplace. But new research released by Fierce Conversations and Quantum Workplace demonstrates
that not only are both commonplace, but they can also be detrimental to
employee morale and productivity.

The research is based on a survey of over
1,300 employees, conducted from June 6-16, that captured people’s perceptions
about communication in the workplace, and how lack of communication and
miscommunication affect employee engagement. Fierce Conversations is a
communications training company based in Seattle. Quantum Workplace is an
employee feedback software company based in Omaha, Neb.

Among the findings:

Only about half of respondents said their
conversations with colleagues or managers were “excellent” or
“great.” The other half rated their conversations as “less than

“For many of us, the biggest barrier to
having high-quality conversations is that we’re afraid to share what we’re
really thinking and feeling,” the research authors wrote. “We chicken
out … when the opportunity is on the table to voice our concerns. Being real is
scary, but it’s the unreal conversations that should scare us because they’re
incredibly expensive. A problem exists whether we talk about it or not.”

The more that workers perceived their
conversations with co-workers or managers to be of high quality, the more
engaged they were at work. Employees who rated their conversations with co-workers
poorly had a particularly low level of employee engagement.

“Disengaged employees don’t understand
how they fit into the future, how managers view their performance or where the
company is headed,” said Anthony Edwards, a Quantum Workplace client advisor
who was quoted in the report. “It’s not surprising that those who have
high-quality conversations have a better connection to their teams, the work
they do and the organization as a whole.”

More than 8 in 10 respondents said that
miscommunication at work happens very frequently, frequently or occasionally.
 But only half said that such
miscommunication was their fault.

“People are inclined to believe ‘It’s not
me, it’s you’ because of self-serving bias and defensive attribution,”
said Dan Harris, a Quantum Workplace insights analyst who’s quoted in the
report. “The self-serving bias is a tendency for people to distort their
perceptions to maintain or potentially enhance their self-worth. People often
want to have a favorable view of themselves, so distancing themselves from a
problem—such as miscommunication at work—allows them to reason that they’re not
to blame; other people are.”

When asked who should be responsible for
reducing miscommunication at work, nearly 1 in 3 respondents said managers and
supervisors were. Slightly more than half said that all employee groups were

“Company cultures are developed from the
top down, in both favorable and unfavorable situations,” the authors
wrote. “It is critical that leaders not only hold themselves accountable
to prevent and resolve miscommunications that happen within their own teams,
but also those that occur companywide.”

About half of employees don’t regularly speak
their minds at work—whether to colleagues or managers,
 the research found.

“If there is something that we genuinely
want to say, chances are there is someone who genuinely needs to hear it,”
the authors wrote. “But too often we choose the path of safety and give up
the possibility of addressing issues that undermine our relationships, limit
our productivity, chip away at self-confidence and constrain opportunity.”

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and
Sustaining Employee Engagement

The authors offered these tips for having
honest conversations:

-Recognize that your reluctance to speak
openly may be because in the past, telling the truth backfired.

-Ask yourself how telling the truth might
improve a situation or prevent it from worsening.

-Start the conversation with the intention of
producing a positive outcome.

-Practice what you want to say and how you’re
going to say it.

-Ask questions so you can gather more
information, eliminate assumptions and find solutions.

Employees who said they always or almost
always speak their minds reported being more engaged at work than those who
said they never or almost never did so.

The authors wrote that creating a
“voice-empowered culture” requires that employers:

-Build a foundation of trust. This means
leaders must communicate transparently and authentically, not just parrot
“the company line”; stay visible, not holed up in a corner office;
and be consistent and fair in their dealings with all employees.  

-Create a feeling of safety. “Foster a
safe space for voices by paying attention to the way you react to feedback and
ideas,” the authors wrote. “If employees witness leaders shutting
employees down or retaliating in some manner, don’t expect them to share in
the future.”

-Be open to and supportive of ideas.
“Create a trusting and supportive environment where incomplete ideas or
thoughts can be fostered,” the authors wrote. “You can do this by
recognizing someone for sharing an idea in its infancy or sharing your own idea
for early feedback. Be open to having others critique your ideas. Show your
vulnerability by admitting when you’re wrong or unsure.”

-Respond. Show workers how their feedback is
being used. “Employees need to see the impact their voices can make,”
the authors wrote. “If you don’t respond with action or answers, employees
will begin to realize that their voice really doesn’t matter and think, ‘What’s
the point?’ ”

-Provide guidance. If an employee is
disrespectful or unprofessional while sharing an opinion, take the worker aside
and explain that while the feedback is valuable, the employee must learn to
share it in a way that doesn’t make others feel uncomfortable, attacked or cut

Group conversations—such as during
meetings—are more likely to produce miscommunication than one-on-one
 said nearly 56
percent of respondents. The No. 1 reason for miscommunication during team meetings,
they said, was because people interpreted messages and goals differently. The
No. 2 reason, they said, was because people didn’t feel comfortable voicing
their opinions.

“Even at the best companies, meetings are
often dreaded,” the authors wrote. “People are unprepared, bored or
disengaged for any number of reasons. The good news is, if the right
conversations are taking place, meetings can be a productive use of time.”

Among the authors’ suggestions for making
meetings productive: Set a clear intention for the meeting and communicate it
ahead of time, tell workers they’ll be asked for their opinions, and discuss
how ideas and opinions will be acted on. “Get specific,” the authors
wrote. “Assign responsibilities and schedule a time for everyone to reconnect
on progress.”

During conversations between a manager and a
worker about the latter’s performance, the No. 1 thing that causes
miscommunication, respondents said, is when the worker feels that he won’t be
listened to.
 Another frequent
cause of miscommunication, they said, is unclear developmental goals.

Some ways to prevent miscommunication during these
conversations, the authors wrote, include: having the worker and manager create
a list of topics they want to discuss and share those lists before the meeting;
documenting what was discussed; writing development goals together; and
summarizing at the end of the meeting what was discussed and planned, so both
participants are on the same page.

Miscommunication is a very
important issue that occurs in almost every workplace.  At Converge HR Solutions, we can help prevent
that with our HR outsourcing service.
This service includes assistance with employee relations, performance
management, and multiple different benefits that can be of use to your company. For more information on our outsourcing service, or any of our
other services in general, visit our website at or email us directly at or give us a call at 610-296-8550.


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