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Supportive voices at work may lead to better staff outcomes, study finds

Experts found that employees react differently to different tones of voice in the workplace

Coworkers at the office
Photo (c) 10'000 Hours - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Iowa State University explored how using a supportive tone of voice can lead to better outcomes in the workplace. The team says coworkers respond better to these tones than harsher, more critical tones. 

“What we say within a group, the ideas we suggest, and the way we support others, signals something about who we are to our coworkers,” said researcher Melissa Chamberlin. “It can attract people to us or repel them.” 

Maintaining support in the workplace

To understand how employees’ tones of voice may change the way they’re perceived at work, the researchers conducted a four-month study involving first-year graduate students in an MBA program. The students were required to work in teams, and they shared what they thought of their fellow team members based on trust, their quality of work, their tone, and their overall respect. As the study came to a close, participants were able to choose their own teams; they explained their decision-making for the selections at the end of the experiment. 

The study revealed an interesting trend among the students: It was more desirable to work with those who had more supportive tones, but those with more challenging tones were perceived to produce better quality work. However, the students were more likely to choose to work with those who had more supportive voices than those who were more challenging. 

The researchers explained that speaking in a challenging voice usually projects confidence among workers while also highlighting improvements, new ways of doing things, and what needs to change. Conversely, supportive tones tend to highlight what’s working with the current system in place and emphasize the things that are going well. 

In practice, a supportive tone tends to be more attractive to workers. While someone using a challenging tone may have a better work-related reputation, they aren’t as likely to get others to want to work with them. 

“Because challenging voice is the predominant form of speaking up we encourage in classrooms and as managers, we thought it was going to be a strong driver of people selecting team members later. But as it turns out, this more supportive voice that helps establish relationships and a sense of trust amongst individuals in the group was more important,” said Chamberlin.

“There might be times that challenging voices reign supreme but other situations where supportive voices become more critical for a team. Supportive voicers can keep teams together to make sure the work gets done.” 

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