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
they measured both voice behaviors again.
They used the same survey methods in the second study, except over four consecutive days. This time, they also controlled for things like perceived safety and motivation, and measured ensuing task performance.
The findings were consistent across both studies. Promotion focus predicted increases in promotive voice (and, also, though to a lesser extent, prohibitive voice). Prevention focus only predicted increases in prohibitive voice. And it’s worth noting that the two behaviors aren’t mutually exclusive — an employee can exhibit both types of voice in a day. Here are the averages from study 2:
The researchers also observed that expressing prohibitive voice increased employees’ sense of mental fatigue, while promotive voice appeared to reduce it. One potential reason for this, Johnson explained, could be that there’s a certain amount of excitement involved in thinking about how to make things better, and this might help counteract feelings of fatigue. When you look at how participants in the second study reported their fatigue, you can see that employees felt twice as drained when they had a strong prevention focus (and/or a weak promotion focus).
“In terms of wellbeing at work, it really does pay to not be constantly thinking about potential problems and mistakes that may be around the corner,” Johnson said. “It’s much better to think about potential good stuff that can happen and the benefits of being successful, as opposed to the pains of failure.”
Both studies suggested that increased fatigue also led to less speaking up overall in the future. After bringing up problems and concerns, employees felt more mentally drained the next week (study 1) or day (study 2), and were then less likely to speak up with any issues or ideas the following week or day. And in the second study, they also found that fatigue predicted lower productivity the next day, as well as more deviant and abusive behavior—a finding that’s consistent with other studies on fatigue, ethics, and engagement.
While there are some strong implications here, there were limitations to the research. First, causation could not be conclusively proved. Even though focus, voice, and fatigue were measured over time and in an order that suggests causation, the studies’ observational design couldn’t totally confirm this effect. Plus, other explanations still exist. Maybe how much energy we feel shapes what we focus on, and how we act, rather than vice versa. And while the researchers described several factors (goals, emotions, and so on) that may connect someone’s focus with their propensity to speak up, they didn’t measure those factors. In addition, the researchers caution that more research into types of fatigue — mental, physical, and emotional — is needed.
Employee silence will always be an issue, as will be figuring out how to encourage more (and better) voice. But in light of this research, it’s important to also consider how such speaking out affects the people doing the speaking. If you want your employees to be more vocal about mistakes and potential problems, be aware that doing so might wear them out.