An approach-inhibition model of employee silence: The joint effects of personal sense of power and target openness

Elizabeth W. Morrison, Kelly E. See, and Caitlin Pan
Personnel Psychology, Volume 68, Issue 3, Pp. 547–580

When employees consciously withhold potentially important suggestions or concerns from those who may be able to act on that information, it can have serious implications for organizational performance. Yet there is research suggesting that, when faced with the choice of whether or not to raise an issue, employees often choose to remain silent. Our objective in this paper is to expand current theoretical understanding of why employees often remain silent and of situational factors that can lessen this tendency. Drawing on the approach-inhibition theory of power, we argue that an employee’s personal sense that he or she is lacking in power in relation to others at work is a key factor contributing to the decision to remain silent but that this effect is moderated by perceived target openness. We took a multimethod approach, testing these relationships across 3 studies: a laboratory experiment, a survey study of healthcare workers, and a survey study of employees working across a wide range of industries. Our findings suggest that, although silence is indeed rooted in the psychological experience of powerlessness, perceived target openness mitigates this relationship, encouraging employee to speak up when they would not otherwise do so.