Honesty Between Friends? Not So Much

Employees who are close to their managers may hold back from voicing concerns.

Tomertu/ Shutterstock
Tomertu/ Shutterstock

Bad ideas abound in all types of organizations. That time when Dove ran an ad portraying a black woman turning white after washing with Dove soap? Bad idea. Or Ohio State’s years of not acting on athletes’ complaints that they’d been sexually abused by team doctor Richard Strauss? That was a really bad idea. And what about when the big banks bought millions of high-risk mortgages? Everybody knows that was the worst of ideas.

When things like this happen, it’s hard to believe that no one involved realized that a poor decision was in the works. Did that someone voice their reservations, only to be dismissed? The former—voicing reservations—happens less often than it should. The dismissals, far too often. As much as employees are urged to speak up, most people intuitively know that doing so could be risky. Research supports this perception. Pointing out issues is often received by managers as an ego threat, which may lead the manager to more negatively evaluate the offending employee’s performance.

You’d think that strong manager-employee relationships would make employees feel safer to express dissent. After all, we usually feel more comfortable risking honesty with people we’re close to. However, in a paper forthcoming in the journal of Human Relations, my colleagues and I looked into this seemingly obvious likelihood and unearthed surprising results.

We presented 55 managers and their 214 employees with a series of scenarios depicting hypothetical decisions their team had made. Employees had the option of pointing out a problem with the decision, supporting the decision, or saying nothing. Managers were presented with what they believed were the choices made by two of their employees and were asked to decide how interested they were in seeing what each employee had to say. Prior to presenting the scenarios, we had each manager and employee answer questions about the quality of their relationship. The two employees whose choices were presented to the manager were the ones who’d received the manager’s highest and lowest ratings of relationship quality. (In reality, all of the managers received the same messages, regardless of their employees’ choices.) 

Much to our surprise, employees who rated their relationship with their manager as strong were less likely to voice concerns than those who gave lower ratings. Meanwhile, relationship quality made no difference to managers’ ratings of their interest in employees’ messages. Responding to questions about what drove their choices in the scenarios, employees were clear that they thought it important not to irritate their boss with negative messages. On the other hand, managers commented that they wanted to hear about problems and encouraged input from all of their employees.

Although contrary to our hypotheses, this is not an unfamiliar dynamic. Many organizations in which members have strong bonds with each other demand absolute loyalty, including silence in the face of misgivings. Our survey measure didn’t necessarily weed out this type of “high-quality” relationship. For instance, one of the questions we asked managers and employees was whether each felt the other had their back. Having someone’s back could simply mean being reasonably supportive, even when support has to be offered in the form of telling a friend something they don’t want to hear. But, in many cases, having a friend’s back entails a level of support that requires not pointing out things that might challenge the friend’s self-esteem, make them look bad, or complicate their lives.

There’s plenty of research evidence that positive manager-employee relationships are beneficial to employee well-being and performance. But the content of the relationship matters. Employees speak up in cultures that are psychologically safe, ones in which they believe that their concerns will be met with fairness and respect. The task for managers lies in not just being friendly or claiming to be open, but also in demonstrating that their support won’t disappear the moment an employee challenges them.

Manager displays of openness are also important with lower-ranked employees, who our study found were both less likely to speak up and less likely to catch the manager’s interest. Since lower-level employees are often working directly with products or customers, they may have information that’s invisible to people above them. Moreover, because the lower levels of organizations tend to be less homogeneous than management, lower-ranked employees are likely to be able to offer a wider range of perspectives. Often, managers are making decisions about markets with which they have little personal experience. How else could Dove have allowed that commercial to go to production? The true remedy for this, of course, is to diversify the management ranks. Perhaps that can be accelerated by empowering lower-ranked employees to contribute to decisions more often, which not only enables them to demonstrate their value but also could prevent the implementation of some very, very bad ideas.

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