It’s surprisingly common for employees to remain silent about important issues that they encounter at work. When this happens, it can have very serious performance implications.

In a recent study, NYU Stern School of Business Professors Elizabeth Morrison and Kelly See, along with co-author Caitlin Pan of SIM University, examine why employees often withhold important suggestions and concerns.

They found that a sense of powerlessness plays a key role.

The authors conducted three studies—a laboratory experiment, a survey study of healthcare workers, and a survey study of employees working across a wide range of industries.

Key findings and conclusions include:

  • Employees often choose to withhold information about important issues or concerns at work, which can cause problems to persist and escalate.
  • A key factor contributing to silence is an employee’s perception that he or she has little power in relation to others at work.
  • This effect of feeling powerless is significantly reduced, however, when the employee regards his or her supervisor as open to input.
  • Supervisors can foster a work environment that reduces feelings of powerlessness among employees, and convey genuine openness to input, thereby encouraging more upward communication.

“The consequences of employees not speaking up when they are aware of serious problems can be disastrous,” explained the authors, who site as examples the implosion of Enron, the crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia, the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State, and the faulty ignition switch debacle at GM.

“In each case, there were people who were aware of serious issues or problems, but they failed to speak up and the situation escalated.”