Research in Progress: Breaking employee silence via employee dialogic engagement

September 1, 2020

Minjeong Kang and Bitt Moon

By Minjeong Kang, Indiana University; with Bitt Moon, Indiana University

About two months ago, during breakfast, my husband and I got into a heated discussion with our teenage daughter. The argument was about when it would be safe for her to go back to in-person martial art classes after nearly three months of lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some of our friends had decided to return. However, my husband and I were still worried about returning, even though our Dojang, where she trains, had clearly communicated a strict plan to keep all students safe during the practice. So, the heated discussion ended with our daughter accusing us of never listening to her, and that there was really no point in “discussing” it with us.

It turned out, she made valid and very important points that have riddled all forms of human communications and their failures. My daughter accused us not of our inability to hear her but of our inability to listen to her.

While we may have created a comfortable home environment where our daughter felt safe to voice her opinions, she was frustrated that her opinions didn’t make much difference in the final outcomes. She didn’t feel her voice was properly listened to. In other words, she felt that she was not listened to and our conversation was not dialogic in a true sense, because her parents’ mind was already made up.

In the book “Organizational Listening: The Missing Essential in Public Communication,” Jim Macnamara points out that while communication involves both speaking and listening, organizational communication in research and practice has mainly focused on speaking from the organization-centric perspectives. He writes that “listening” is employed for strategic speaking purposes.

While it may be that organizations typically have ample stakeholder and public voices to listen to, “the work of listening” does not address a pervasive problem of silence, particularly in employee-organization contexts, where power dynamics and interpersonal risks are high for employees to voice out on organizational issues or concerns.

While organizations have long recognized the importance of retaining and harvesting talents from their employees and have invested in providing policies and structures for employees to provide their input for organizational considerations, many employee polls, on the contrary, report the pervasiveness of employee silence, i.e., an epidemic of silence in which employees don’t voice important organizational issues to managers.

Organization psychology and management literature generally identify two primary reasons that employees remain silent on important and relevant organizational issues: the lack of psychological safety i.e., the fear of possible sanctions for speaking up due to power differences, interpersonal risks, fear of isolation, retaliation, mockery, etc.; and the feelings of futility of voicing out. 

Employee voice scholars have suggested ways to mitigate employee silence by creating safe and open organizational climate, humble leadership skills, the egalitarian power structure within the organization, justice perceptions, organizational structures for input seeking.

Reviews of organizational listening and employee voice/silence literature reveal two contrasting assumptions between these two disciplines concerning effective organizational communication. While organizational listening literature assumes that employee voices exist and hence emphasizes the importance of developing “the architecture and the work of listening,” employee voice/silence literature, on the other hand, emphasizes creating psychological and organizational conditions for employee voice with an assumption that organizations are equipped for voice-inducing listening competency.

As my anecdote with my daughter indicates, however, it takes for organizations to establish both the psychological safety to voice and the feelings of being listened to that motivates employees not only to feel safe to but want to voice out their opinions.

Our study aims to integrate these two disciplines in order to develop a comprehensive organizational communication model for employee communication. Specifically, the purpose of our study is to examine psychological safety inducing factors and futility reducing factors that contribute to employee voice/silence at multi-levels (intra-personal, inter-personal, organizational and cultural levels) with the focus of developing organizational listening competency measures from the dialogic communication perspectives and to investigate crucial links between effective organizational listening and positive employee outcomes.

Theoretical implications include the advancement of our understanding of factors that prevent organizations from listening to employee voices. Practical implications of our research include providing diagnostic tools for organizational listening competency with a set of employee psychological safety measure, inter-personal, organizational silence and listening factors through multi-level analyses.

For further information on this study, please email Kang at This project is supported by the 2020 Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant from the Arthur W. Page Center. Results from the study will be available in 2021.