The new research, published in the Academy of Management Learning & Education, draws insight from interviews with 18 academics at a top Western business school to understand the barriers that prevent people from speaking up in meetings.
“Everyone has experienced the frustration of hearing people complain in private about an issue at work after staying silent in a meeting with leaders and decision-makers,” said Professor Betina Szkudlarek, lead author of the study.
“We found that a fear of career damage and a sense that nothing would change anyway, were not the main reasons preventing people from speaking up – these expressed reasons often served as excuses for a wider range of motivations.”
The researchers identified four main behaviours related to silence in meetings:
Professor Szkudlarek acknowledged that while the study involved a small and specific sample, she believes the findings could have applications beyond academia.
To improve meeting participation, she suggests leaders and participants change structures, rituals and expectations to encourage input, and help make meetings a productive use of everyone’s time.
“Leaders should expect that people come to the meeting prepared and are expected to share their views and ideas,” Professor Szkudlarek said.
“They can also run breakout groups to encourage idea sharing and give the groups responsibility for leading discussions – especially around organisational pain points – and implementing actions, which requires dedicated time in their regular workload.
It’s about creating a culture in which speaking up is normal, even if that means appointing someone as a devil’s advocate to get the conversation started.
Professor Szkudlarek also suggested those workers already inclined to speak up should create alliances with their quieter colleagues.
“A collective voice has more power: think long term, stay engaged and exercise responsibility for enacting change,” she said.
“For those who struggle to speak up: be courageous. Stop outsourcing the responsibility to others for raising the issues that are important to you. The more you exercise your voice, the more impactful you will become.”