In two recent posts, Speaking anxiety at work and Inclusion and exclusion in teamwork, we’ve reported research findings on the challenges of speaking up at work. A newly published article reports another research angle on the topic: the impact of storytelling on employees’ willingness to speak up.
The authors, Gans and Zhan, start with an anecdote of organisational storytelling at IBM in the 1970s:
Thomas Watson, Chairman of the Board, is leading a group of senior executives on a tour when a just-hired 22-year-old employee stops him from entering a restricted area because he is not wearing the required identification. As the coterie of horrified executives looks on, Watson raises a hand, thanks the young woman for her dedication, and sends one of the executives back to his office to get the required badge.
This story has a positive outcome – the new employee ‘speaks up’ and Watson’s reaction demonstrates not only the value he places on everyone keeping the rules, but his appreciation of a young employee speaking up to try to enforce this.
The authors then point out that while this story has a positive outcome, most employees actually hesitate to speak up. While there are many potential benefits to organisations when employees speak up, for the employees there are significant risks in doing so. So in reality they are often very reluctant to say anything.
Motives for employee silence
The authors (drawing on other people’s work) identify five reasons why employees may keep silent and fail to speak up.
- Defensive: employee wants to avoid any risks
- Ineffectual: employee believes speaking up won’t make a difference
- Relational: employee wants to avoid harming a relationship
- Diffident: employee hesitates because of lack of confidence
- Disengaged: employee feels disconnected from the organisation
Risk level of different messages:
- Supportive messages: expressing support for existing policies, procedures, objectives, etc. when they are at risk of being overlooked;
- Constructive messages: expressing constructive new ideas, information, opinions, etc.
- Defensive messages: expressing opposition to changes in existing policies, procedures, objectives, etc.
- Destructive messages: expressing negative, critical opinions about work policies, procedures, objectives, etc.
Defensive and destructive messages are clearly the most risky for employees, since they directly challenge the status quo and may easily lead to retaliation, marginalisation, career derailment, and/or stress. However, even supportive and constructive messages may not necessarily be well received, because they can be construed as criticism of managers and colleagues.
Research focus and method
Commenting on the positive impact that storytelling can have more broadly for organisations (e.g. in supporting organisational change), the researchers decided to investigate its influence on employees’ willingness to speak up. They researched four different conditions:
- Directive persuasion: Participants are given three reasons for speaking up, e.g. ‘Your coworkers and managers will appreciate it’.
- Narrative persuasion: Participants read a narrative about a colleague who speaks up to support a new teambuilding initiative at work and receives positive feedback from the organisation and from colleagues.
- Narrative + directive persuasion: Participants read the narrative first and are then presented with the directive persuasion message.
- Control: none of the above persuasion tactics.
615 participants received one of the above conditions and then responded to five questions on their intention to speak up in the near future on various issues; e.g. “Looking ahead, in the next 30 days, how likely are you to speak up. . . to defend organizational programs that are worthwhile when others unfairly criticize the programs.”).
The researchers found that the type of persuasion the participants were given noticeably affected their ratings of the likelihood of them speaking up in the near future. As the figure below shows, the narrative + directive condition had the greatest positive impact, followed by the narrative condition. In terms of the statistical impact of the different conditions, speaking up was significantly more likely to occur when participants were both told a story and given a directive than when they only received a directive or were told nothing at all prior to rating their likelihood of speaking up.
The authors also found (through an additional measure labelled ‘transportation’) that a key influencing factor on how much the story affected the participants’ ratings of likelihood of speaking up was the extent to which they could identify with the characters in the story and how far they could perceive similarities with their own situation and personal characteristics.
The authors recommend that organisations consider constructing organisational stories that lead to positive and worthwhile outcomes for both the organisation and for the employees. These stories can then be used to depict speaking up as a normative element of organisational culture.
They also recommend constructing stories that employees can identify well with and that have similarities with their own situations and personal characteristics (i.e. have ‘high transportation’).
There are a number of limitations to the study, including the following:
- The online survey was completed by a virtual pool of participants – this may differ from responses given by employees in a ‘real’ organisation.
- The likelihood of speaking up was a hypothetical situation – we cannot know whether the impact of the different conditions (e.g. narrative or narrative + directive) would be the same in real life.
- The study only explored ‘constructive speaking up messages’, so we don’t know the potential impact of storytelling on other types of speaking up messages.
Discussion and key takeaways
- Stories are known to affect leaders, positively or negatively. So it is feasible – and probably likely – that they can affect employees’ willingness to speak up, both positively and negatively.
- In my view, the stories should be authentic ones, not made-up ones simply to achieve a particular purpose.
- Organisations / managers could usefully collect authentic stories for future sharing with employees.
- All managers will need to react positively to employees speaking up, otherwise the impact will be counterproductive.
- Workplace stories are usually shared informally on workplace grapevines. Thought would need to be given as to how best to share ‘speaking up stories’ intentionally yet authentically.
- More research is needed within organisations, and in relation to different types of speaking up messages, to further explore the potential impact of storytelling on employees’ willingness to speak up.
Communication at work
If you would like to learn more about communication at work, including issues of the impact of (organisational) culture, get in touch with us. We offer a range of services to support you in this. Just email GPC or Helen directly.
Also, our latest book Global Fitness for Global People: How to manage and leverage cultural diversity at work provides many insights.
Professor Helen Spencer-Oatey, Managing Director
References / Notes
 Gans, R. and Zhan, M. (2023) A story about speaking up: Mediation effectives of narrative persuasion on organisational voice intentions. International Journal of Business Communication, 60(3): 865–891. https://doi.org/10.1177/2329488422109127
 Unfortunately, the published article does not state the scale range used for probing ‘Intention to speak up’.
 E.g. See Ladkin, D. (2010). Rethinking Leadership. A New Look at Old Leadership Questions. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.