Silence really is golden for employees who know how to wield it.
A recent paper led by Wharton management professor Michael Parke reveals that some of the highest-performing employees intentionally withhold information, ideas, or concerns until the time is right to speak up. Their “strategic silence” is often rewarded by managers who view their voices as more valuable to the organization and the task at hand.
The scholars say their research findings challenge the predominant view that silence at work is inherently harmful.
“People don’t just engage in silence when they are afraid or when they think there’s no point, which is what the literature had suggested and assumed,” Parke said to Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM. “They actually do it for strategic reasons, for performance reasons, to make their voice come out and be received much better when it does.”
The paper, “How Strategic Silence Enables Employee Voice to Be Valued and Rewarded,” was co-authored by Subrahmaniam Tangirala, management professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, and Apurva Sanaria and Srinivas Ekkirala, both organizational behavior and human resources management professors at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore.
Conducting a qualitative study and two field studies, the professors found that employees who use strategic silence most effectively consider three factors in deciding when and how to speak up: issue relevance, issue readiness, and target responsiveness. First, they determine whether speaking up would align with the goals of the recipient or the current situation (i.e., relevance). Second, they determine whether they are ready to talk or need to hold off until they collect more data, find a solution, or think through some other aspect of the problem or idea (i.e., readiness). Third, they wait until the recipient — usually a manager — is in the right cognitive (not too busy) or emotional state (not in a bad mood) to hear the message (i.e., responsiveness).
When strategically silent employees finally present their case, it’s not surprising to find their managers value it. That’s because what they share is now perceived as deliberate, thoughtful, and well-timed. Ultimately, the study found these employees get higher performance evaluations and are rated more favorably by their managers.
“There is not only team value for doing this, but individual value as well,” Parke said.
“People don’t just engage in silence when they are afraid or when they think there’s no point, which is what the literature had suggested and assumed.”— Michael Parke
Reading the Room
Parke acknowledged that knowing when to speak can be complicated for employees trying to navigate the social and professional norms of their workplace, or even the mood of a mercurial boss. Nobody wants to be the person who hijacks a meeting by bringing up a half-baked idea or non sequitur, yet most managers don’t want employees to stay mum on what could be a looming problem.
Parke said building trust will enable more meaningful conversations, and he encouraged leaders to “check in” with their employees more frequently to establish open lines of communication.
“If leaders in teams had more explicit conversations about the avenues for which people communicate different ideas and concerns and issues, they could navigate that in a much more efficient way. But I don’t think that happens,” he said, adding that employees often hold back because they are trying to “read the room.”
Parke also warned managers to be careful about creating an environment where only expert voices are allowed. He said quality and expertise are correlated, but not perfectly. Experts’ ideas should be challenged, and there should be room for healthy debate.
“The other thing to bring up is that even though we want high-quality voice, there has to be patience for low-quality voice,” he said. “By people understanding why their voice is low quality, they can improve and learn.”
In addition, Parke pointed out the limitations of their research — it focused on task-related strategic silence as opposed to silence on social issues, such as concerns related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). He noted that organizations must ensure that employees feel confident and free to discuss DEI without fear of backlash or retaliation.
“Even though we want high-quality voice, there has to be patience for low-quality voice.”— Michael Parke
Does Strategic Silence Help the Firm?
Scholars are still learning new things about workplace communication. Parke said he is studying the impact of what is known as faking voice, where someone offers a little bit of input without full feedback or disclosure, and voice leakage, where employees talk to each other about a problem rather than directly to the managers capable of addressing it.
Parke said he and his colleagues want to take their study on strategic silence a step further to show the costs and benefits. If strategic silence is good for individual employees, is it also good for teams and organizations? Or does it delay solutions, costing a company more in the long run?
“There’s still a lot to uncover and unpack in this area,” Parke said. He hopes the insights gained from the research can be used to “advise leaders and employees on how to navigate these conversations effectively and efficiently, because voice is so critical to the success and the well-being of the organization.”