Photo by Andrew Nguyen
When employees see something amiss, you want them to be able to speak up. GM’s safety scandal last year is a good reminder why; the Challenger and Columbia explosions are classic case studies. People often avoid raising difficult issues, so the struggle to encourage this behavior has become a perennial management problem.
The latest addition to the corpus of research on this suggests why: Speaking up can wear us out. A new paper, forthcoming later this year in the Journal of Applied Psychology, studies the effects of different kinds of speech on employees. In “A Suggestion to Improve a Day Keeps Your Depletion Away,” authors Szu-Han (Joanna) Lin and Russell E. Johnson found that expressing concern and criticism (what’s called prohibitive voice) was more mentally taxing than suggesting ideas for improvement (promotive voice), and this mental fatigue led to increased reluctance to speak up again, later. Conversely, speaking up with ideas seemingly reduced employees’ fatigue.
This isn’t the first time the researchers have studied how desirable behaviors have consequences. We know that being fair, for example, leads to more motivated employees — but Johnson’s previous research found that enforcing fairness can take a mental and emotional toll on supervisors. He and Lin suspected that constantly monitoring for problems or mistakes could have a similar tiring effect.
To find out, they conducted two studies. Along with measuring the subsequent effects of prohibitive and promotive voice, they also looked at the personalities that prompted them. Psychologists have long drawn a distinction between promotion-focused personalities and prevention-focused personalities. People with a strong promotion focus are motivated by new opportunities and the potential for gain, while those with a strong prevention focus are more motivated by avoiding risk and loss.
In the first study, they collected data from self-reported surveys in four waves, separated by one-week intervals. Participants were asked to rate various statements on a five-point scale, with five being the most accurate. And according to the researchers, a separate validation study showed that the self-reports were good proxies for actual voice behavior.
The first week, researchers assessed focus with items such as: “Right now, I am focused on achieving positive outcomes at work” and “Right now, I am focused on preventing negative events at work.” The second week, they assessed voice behavior: “I proactively develop and make suggestions for issues that may influence the unit;” “I dare to point out problems when they appear in the unit, even if that would hamper relationships with colleagues.” Third, they measured mental fatigue or depletion: “I feel drained;” “Right now, it would take a lot of effort for me to concentrate on something.” Week
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