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Bosses' reactions could impact if workers speak up

Researchers suggest language is powerful in the workplace

Photo (c) filadendron - Getty Images
There are a lot of things that are stressful about work, but a new study could have employees reconsidering if speaking up in front of their boss is one of them.

According to researcher Danielle King, workers are more comfortable sharing their new ideas with their bosses when they receive positive, encouraging comments.

“Given that many employee ideas for change cannot be endorsed, our results highlight the practical importance of providing sensitive explanations for why employee suggestions cannot be embraced,” King said. “Specifically, it is critically important for leaders to exhibit sensitivity in their communication with employees.”

Cultivating a positive work environment

King conducted two studies to gauge how supervisors’ responses affected their employees’ likelihood of speaking up in future situations, both of which proved that sensitivity is key for good morale.

In the first study, nearly 200 participants completed a survey that assessed their experience being rejected in the workplace.

Participants not only described a moment when one of their ideas had been shot down by their boss, but also reflected on how the experience affected their self-esteem and likelihood of speaking up again, and how their bosses had handled the rejection.

The second study had student workers at a marketing agency have their ideas rejected by their bosses. They received one of four different responses, all varying in sensitivity. Following the automated response, the students were then able to revise their pitches and resubmit their ideas.

In both scenarios, the employees were more receptive to bosses who offered clear explanations of why their ideas couldn’t work, while also encouraging them to continue sharing their ideas in the future.

When the reason for rejection was poorly explained or insensitive to the employers’ feelings, workers were less likely to express ideas in future situations.

King hopes that employers are inspired by these findings, and they implement some of these sensitivity tools in their own workplaces.

“As demonstrated in our study, explanation sensitivity led employees to opening up again,” King said. “In addition, it may be valuable to help employees understand that extenuating circumstances sometimes prevent implementation of potentially good ideas. It would also be useful to provide justification for why complete explanations cannot be revealed for strategic or confidentiality reasons. If such explanations are delivered in a sensitive manner, this should maintain the type of leader-employer relationship that encourages employees to speak up in the future.”

Staying open-minded at work

While criticism can be hard to swallow, especially in the workplace, a recent study found that being open to criticism can actually help consumers’ creativity when at work. Researchers found that when criticism comes from a boss can create some roadblocks, while receiving criticism from those of a lower rank can benefit workers’ productivity.

“It makes sense that employees might feel threatened by criticism from their managers,” said researcher Yeun Joon Kim. “Supervisors have a lot of influence in deciding promotions or pay raises. So negative feedback from a boss might trigger career anxieties.”

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