When (not) to stand up to the boss

When (not) to stand up to the boss

When employees and their bosses hold similar beliefs about when to speak up or disagree at work, they have a better working relationship and this relates to a better performance appraisal for the employee.

Quiet quitting has been hogging news headlines. A Gallup survey found that quiet quitters, or workers who are just fulfilling the bare minimum at work, make up at least half of the workforce in the United States. Disgruntled employees are found elsewhere. In Singapore, 58% of workers felt overworked, according to Microsoft's Work Trend Index published in 2021. A survey by Mahidol University found that Thai employees in state enterprises and the private sector have high burnout rates of over 70%. Millennials in China who forsake the hard work culture decide to "lie flat" or "tang ping".

Behind all the disgruntlement lies a lack of communication. Employers and employees may disagree on certain issues but do not think it is worthwhile to start a conversation.

People have different beliefs about speaking up at work. In some cultures, challenging the bosses is a norm. In others, disagreeing with the bosses is a taboo. It may be harder in Asian culture where speaking up to bosses is not a given. Compared to Westerners, Asians have greater respect for authority. There is that slight pause before an Asian employee decides to voice his or her disagreement to the superior. The unconscientious belief about the potential risks associated with speaking up at work drives our decision of withholding ideas or raising suggestions.

What makes the matter more complex is that in today's globalised workplace, employees and employers come from all cultures. A worker in Asia may face a Western supervisor, or a Westerner may work for an Asian boss. Other than their nationalities, individual personality and work experience also shape one's view of speaking up at work.

What researchers found is that it helps when the employer and employee share similar beliefs about speaking up. Whether the pair believes in raising objections or staying silent on disagreement, a similar belief points to a better working relationship. It even relates to a better performance appraisal for the employee.

Together with colleagues from the University of Arizona and Indiana University, we looked at a sample of 900 government employees in the US, with matched responses from their supervisors. While previous research covered employees' view of speaking up, our research, published in the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, looked at the matching beliefs of both leaders and followers.

We asked participants questions such as "on a scale, speaking up to suggest a better way of doing something is likely to offend the person(s) currently in charge of the process or product you're speaking about". We also captured actual performance appraisals that were conducted approximately six months after the close of the survey.

After controlling for employee gender, age, ethnicity, years of service at the organisation and team size, we found that when the leader and the employee held similar beliefs about disagreement at work, their work relationship was more harmonious. It also correlated to a better appraisal for the employee. In fact, this effect on the appraisal was the strongest when both the leader and employee believed that it was good for the employee to challenge the leader often.

Managing work relationships is often a work in progress. A 2017 Employee Engagement Report by human resource solutions firm TINYpulse showed that Asian employees faced communication issues with their bosses. 40% of employees said their interaction with bosses were great, but this figure was nearly 15% points below the global average.

People who want to improve their working relationship can talk to their leaders or employees to find out their beliefs when it comes to speaking up, and match the belief accordingly. There are benefits. Frank discussions create opportunities for the firm; mistakes or miscommunication may be avoided; the quality of the work relationships improves. Silence or rebuttals in the office need not be a bad thing, so long as your boss thinks the same way too.

Ke Michael Mai is an Assistant Professor at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

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