Empowering Leadership Reduces Employee Silence in Organizations Summary Hi
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– Findings *you will find it on analysis *
– practical implication *you will find it on discussion * Received: 20 April 2018
Revised: 23 August 2018
Accepted: 12 November 2018
How empowering leadership reduces employee
silence in public organizations
| Leisha DeHart-Davis2
| Zhongnan Jiang1
John Glenn College of Public Affairs, The
Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA
The intentional withholding of critical work-related information can
School of Government, University of North
Carolina-Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North
have serious negative consequences in public organizations. Yet,
Shahidul Hassan, John Glenn College of Public
Affairs, The Ohio State University, 1810
College Road South, Columbus, OH 43210,
This article provides insights into how managers may lower
few studies have examined why public employees intentionally
remain silent about problems and how to prevent such behaviour.
employee silence in government organizations. We develop a
model that suggests that empowering leadership by frontline
supervisors reduces public employee silence, by improving
employee trust in their supervisors, granting employees control
over their jobs, and strengthening identification with the organization. We test the model in two cross-sectional studies with data
collected from all employees working in two local governments in
the United States. We find empirical support for the model in both
studies. We discuss the implications of the research results for public management scholarship and practice.
1 | I N T R O D U CT I O N
The reluctance of public employees to speak up about organizational problems can have serious negative consequences (Morrison and Milliken 2000). At the organizational level, silence can diminish organizational performance
by reducing the chance that errors are detected and rectified (Knoll and Redman 2016) and that serious ethical transgressions are prevented (Clapham and Cooper 2005). The inability of public employees to share ideas and provide
inputs may also hinder innovation (Gambarotto and Camazo 2010) and positive organizational change (Argyris and
Schon 1978) and stifle employee development and creativity (Knoll and Redman 2016). At the individual level, silence
can reduce employee job satisfaction, increase cynicism and stress, and cause emotional exhaustion (Cortina and
Magley 2003; Whiteside and Barclay 2013).
Despite the potential damage that silence can inflict on the effectiveness of government organizations, it is surprising that few studies have examined the causes of public employee silence and mechanisms for reducing such
behaviour. The existing research focuses largely on employees of private/business organizations (Morrison 2014).
Only one study has been conducted in a public sector setting, with a theoretical angle related to the effects of silence
on innovation in public services (Gambarotto and Camazo 2010). We contend that silence evokes a different set of
issues for government organizations, and as such, is worthy of study as a public management topic. More specifically,
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/padm Public Administration. 2019;97:116131.
HASSAN ET AL.
these issues related to the potential for employee silence undercut the public values of transparency and accountability (Jørgensen and Bozeman 2007), may facilitate high profile disasters, such as the Space Shuttle Challenger
explosion (Whiteside and Barclay 2013), promote government guerillas (OLeary 2013), and contravene constitutional protections for some forms of public employee speech (Norton 2009).
In addition to studying the incidences of employee silence in a government work setting, this article also draws
attention to the role of public managers in mitigating silence. Specifically, we focus on the potential empowering role
of supervisors, who are known to exert considerable influence on the day-to-day activities of frontline employees in
government organizations (Lipsky 2010). The emerging research on empowering leadership in government organizations suggests that empowering supervisors not only share power with frontline employees, but also provide support
during difficult or stressful periods and motivate them to take initiatives on their own to solve organizational problems (Miao et al. 2013; Hassan et al. 2018; Park and Hassan 2018). Empowering leadership practices have been
linked empirically to an array of silence-related behavioursfor example, improvement-oriented voice (Park and Hassan 2018) and greater sense of agency (Kirkman and Rosen 1999; Randolph and Kemery 2011)but not to silence of
government employees per se.
To address these gaps in the silence literature, that is, the neglect of public sector settings and the dearth of
empirical research on the silence effects of empowering managerial practices, we develop a conceptual model that
elucidates how empowering supervisory practices may reduce the likelihood of public employees withholding information about critical organizational issues and problems. Specifically, drawing on the theories of social exchange
(Blau 1964), self-determination (Deci and Ryan 1985), and social identity (Ashforth and Mael 1989), we contend that
the influence of supervisor empowering leadership behaviour on subordinates silence will be mediated by their interpersonal trust in their supervisor, perceptions about job control, and identification with their employing organization.
We test this model in two studies with survey data that we collected from employees of two local governments in
the United States.
This article contributes to public administration scholarship in several ways. First, by situating silence in a public
sector context, we address a contemporary social problem: the need to reduce silence among public servants during
a time when some argue that private concerns are overriding the public interest and the legitimacy of government is
being questioned (Frederickson et al. 2015). Accordingly, this research generates evidence and insights that public
managers can use to reduce subordinates silence in their organizations. Second, along with establishing an empirical
connection between empowering leadership and silence, our research sheds light on the mechanisms by which
empowering supervisory behaviour may lower public employee silence, through increasing interpersonal trust in their
supervisor, perceptions of job control, and organizational identification. Prior studies on employee silence in private
organizations did not empirically assess these three mechanisms together in the same study. Our research provides a
better understanding of the relative efficacy of the mechanisms through which empowering leadership behaviour
may reduce silence of public employees.
The article is organized as follows: first, we review the extant literature on employee silence, then we develop
theoretical arguments that connect empowering managerial practices to silence. Second, we present the procedures,
samples, methods, and results of each study. Finally, we discuss the implications of our results for public management
research and practice and provide some directions for future research on employee silence in public organizations.
2 | L I T ER A T U R E A N D H Y P O T HE S I S
2.1 | Employee silence
Silence refers to intentional withholding of critical information about organizational problems and practices from
others in the workplace (Morrison and Milliken 2003). Not every case of non-communication denotes silence though.
It is only when one chooses, due to some strategic reasons or concerns, not to disclose relevant information to others
HASSAN ET AL.
(Tangirala and Ramanujam 2008). As such, it is a suppressive communicative behaviour and is related to a broader
class of expressive communication behaviours that are referred to as voice (Hirschman 1970). These behaviours
include issue selling (Dutton and Ashford 1993), taking charge (Morrison and Phelps 1999), whistle blowing (Miceli
and Near 1988), and principled dissent (Graham 1986; OLeary 2013). While voice and silence are related concepts,
they are not two ends of a continuum (Morrison 2014). The absence of voice does not necessarily imply intentional
withholding of information. A person may choose not to use voice, for example, because they have no concerns or
questions or simply nothing useful to offer (Pinder and Harlos 2001).
Silence is widespread in organizations. A survey conducted by Milliken et al. (2003) showed that almost 85 per
cent of the respondents could recall a recent event in which they did not speak up about a problem or something of
concern. Although common, silence is not easily observable because it often involves peoples inner thoughts and
feelings. Even when an observer is able to discern someone elses silence, it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to
pinpoint the underlying cause. This creates a potential difficulty for organizational researchers in measuring employee
silence because supervisor or peer reports are likely to be inaccurate.
Silence is a multifaceted construct (Brinsfield 2013). An individual may remain silent about a variety of issues
including problems about work processes, workload, manager and co-worker competence and behaviour, concerns
about pay, equity, and mistreatment of co-workers, disagreement about organizational policies and decisions, and
ethical misconduct of organizational members (Milliken et al. 2003; Brinsfield 2013). The targets of silence can also
vary considerably from supervisors to peers to external regulators. Moreover, an employee may remain silent about
some issues, for example, a co-workers intentional absence or minor infraction of organizational rules, but not
others, for example, incidences of sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Individuals may also choose to withhold information from some targets, for example, regulators and media, but not others, for example, co-workers. The
multifaceted nature of silence suggests that its antecedents may vary for different combinations of actors, topics,
and targets (Tangirala and Ramanujam 2008). The focus of our research is on a widespread form of employee silence,
that is, the withholding of concerns and opinions about organizational problems (Morrison and Milliken 2000).
2.2 | Empowering leadership
Empowering leadership is part of the broader construct of employee empowerment. The literature on empowerment
is vast. To briefly summarize, two separate conceptual approaches have emerged over the past two decades. The first
approach conceptualizes empowerment as a relational construct, while the second approach treats it as a motivational construct, focusing on the cognitive states that are empowering (Fernandez and Moldogaziev 2011).
We rely on the relational perspective of empowerment which has roots in social exchange theory (Emerson
1962; Blau 1964). The relational perspective suggests that power comes about when the performance outcomes of
an individual depend on the actions and resources of others (Pfeffer 2010). All organizational members have some
power, but it varies according to ones dependence on others (Emerson 1962). The key sources of power for individuals in organizations are the formal positions that they occupy, their personal characteristics, such as reputation, charisma, expertise, and their ability to access resources that others value (Bacharach and Lawler 1980). Empowerment
in this perspective is a process in which people who hold power in an organization share it with those who are relatively powerless (Conger and Kanungo 1988).
In the extensive research on participative management, management by objectives, shared goal-setting, and selfmanaging teams, empowerment has been described from the relational perspective with an emphasis on sharing
authority or power with individuals at the lower levels of an organizational hierarchy (Kanter 1977; Bowen and Lawler 1995; Conger and Kanungo 1988). The empowering practices identified in the early studies are soliciting feedback
from subordinates, including subordinates in decision-making, and delegating authority to allow subordinates to make
decisions about work on their own without prior approval (Kanter 1977; Vroom and Jago 1988). Recent studies have
expanded the boundary of the construct and included other relation-oriented managerial practices, such as coaching
subordinates, recognizing subordinates performance, and providing subordinates with the information and resources
HASSAN ET AL.
necessary to carry out their job duties (Bowen and Lawler 1992, 1995; Arnold et al. 2000; Ahearne et al. 2005; Hassan et al. 2018; Park and Hassan 2018).
We contend that empowering leadership of frontline supervisors will play a critical role in a public employees
decision calculus about whether to raise concerns or remain silent. We consider the behaviour of the supervisor to
be particularly important because perceptions and expectations of an employees work behaviour are strongly influenced by the frequent interactions the employee has with their immediate supervisor (Graen 1976). The behaviour
of the senior manager may also be important, but interactions with upper management are generally infrequent and
an employees perceptions of upper management are largely shaped by the behaviour and quality of interactions they
have with their immediate supervisor (Graen and Uhl-Bien 1995). Among the diverse managerial practices that have
been studied in leadership research (Yukl 2012), practices that are empowering are likely to be particularly important
in reducing the safety concerns and feelings of powerlessness and exclusion that often preclude employees from
sharing information about work problems with others in the workgroup.
2.3 | Research model
Silence stems primarily from fears about the risks of speaking up, a sense of powerlessness, and emotional detachment from the workplace (Morrison 2014). Raising concerns about problems involves taking risks because it can
potentially upset others and lead to negative outcomes (Detert and Edmondson 2011). By raising concerns about an
organizational problem, one may be labelled, for example, as a trouble maker, complainer, or not a team player
(Edmonson 1999). These image concerns are likely to be acute when there are status differences within the organization or when the employee wants to speak up to their direct supervisor. Even when the supervisor appears receptive
to inputs, the employee may have qualms about conveying bad news or raising a problem that may portray the workgroup or organization in a negative light (Detert and Edmondson 2011; Morrison 2014; Hassan 2015).
In addition to the concerns related to emotional safety, the employee may also remain silent due to a sense of
helplessness (Morrison 2014). The employee may feel that raising the issue will not make any difference or change
the situation and, hence, remaining silent is a more sensible choice. This issue is likely to be more salient when the
employee has little control over their work processes or influence on work decisions (Hassan 2015). Identified in the
earlier research, another key factor that may influence employees to withhold critical information about organizational problems is a sense of alienation from their workplace (Tangirala and Ramanujam 2008). This represents feelings such as Why do I care? and It is not my problem.
We contend that the likelihood that a public employee will withhold critical information about work problems
will be lower when her immediate supervisor demonstrates empowering leadership and this effect, as shown in
Figure 1, will be mediated by three perceptual job-related factors: (a) the extent to which the employee trusts her
HASSAN ET AL.
supervisor, (b) her perceptions of job control, and (c) her level of identification with the organization. Next, we discuss
each of these three hypothesized indirect effects and the underlying theoretical arguments.
According to our proposed model, the first mechanism through which supervisor empowering leadership behaviour is likely to reduce subordinate silence is by improving the subordinates interpersonal trust in the supervisor.
Trust in general is defined as ones willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of another based upon the expectation
that the other will act in good faith (Mayer et al. 1995). It is a multidimensional construct that consists of a cognitive
and an affective component (Yang et al. 2009). The cognitive component represents perceptions about ones competence and reliability, while the affective aspect captures interpersonal loyalty and bond (Mayer et al. 1995; Yang
et al. 2009). In the current research, we focus on the affective aspect of subordinates trust in their supervisor.
We hypothesize that supervisor-empowering leadership will reduce the likelihood of subordinate silence by
improving the subordinates interpersonal trust in their supervisor. This follows directly from the assertions of social
exchange theory (Homans 1961; Blau 1964), which suggests that repeated positive social exchanges between two
parties promote mutual respect, trust and liking that lead to an implicit expectation that the parties involved will not
act in ways that undermine the others interests. Moreover, an individuals calculus about whether to raise an issue
or not depends on the favourability of the decision context. If the employees feel that speaking up will lead to negative consequences, they are more likely to remain silent (Morrison 2014). These safety concerns, however, are likely
to be lower when their supervisor is receptive to their inputs and the supervisor actively encourages them to take
ownership of their work and resolve work-related problems on their own (Morrison et al. 2015). Such behaviour will
provide positive cues to the subordinate that the supervisor trusts their judgements and has their best interests at
heart (Miao et al. 2013). Accordingly, we test the following hypothesis:
Hypothesis 1: Supervisor empowering leadership will reduce subordinate silence by improving the
subordinates interpersonal trust in their supervisor.
The second mechanism through which empowering leadership may reduce silence is by improving subordinate perceptions of job control. Job control refers to the perceived ability to exert some influence over ones work environment to make it more rewarding and less taxing (Ganster 1989). It reflects the extent to which one has the freedom
to initiate and regulate their own work behaviour in their workplace. Bandura (2001, p. 10) notes that Among the
mechanisms of personal agency, none is more central or pervasive than peoples beliefs in the capability to exercise
some measure of control over their own functioning and over environmental events.
Because autonomy is a basic psychological need (Deci and Ryan 1985), the lack of job control often increases
stress and anxiety and leads to a sense of helplessness (Spreitzer 1996). This sense of helplessness may preclude
public employees from raising issues and concerns even when they are aware of them. Edmondson (1999, 2003), for
example, found that a key reason why members of product development and surgical teams do not raise issues is
due to a belief that speaking up or raising a concern will not make a difference or change the situation. A recent public sector study showed that perceptions of higher personal control were associated positively with constructive suggestions provided by employees in a state government organization about how to improve their workgroups
performance (Hassan 2015).
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