Author(s), Title and Publication

Hussain, I., Shu, R., Tangirala, S., & Ekkirala, S. (2019). The voice bystander effect: How information redundancy inhibits employee voice. Academy of Management Journal, 62(3), p 828-849.

Summary

The popular proverbial “elephant in the room” and the fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes” speak to observers’ silence in pointing out something that is obviously wrong. Authors of this study believe this reticence also exists in business organizations when employees have a good understanding of work-related issues but fail to speak up to the managers. Therefore, the authors raised the question on why employees do not advise their managers about questionable organizational issues even though the issue is widely recognized by a number of employees. The authors referred to the bystander effect to form their hypotheses. Employees’ bystander effect occurs when many employees sense similar work issues, consider them to be redundant/overlapping information, and therefore experience a “diffusion of responsibility” that prevents an employee from speaking up about work. In other words, when an employee perceives that she/he possesses knowledge that other employees also possess, the individual will be less likely to act on that knowledge because she/he doesn’t feel obliged to contribute to the common good. After all, voice behavior is costly because employees need to devote time, effort, and energy to speak to managers. In addition, the authors argued that employees would be less likely to engage in voice behavior if they are cognizant that their peers are also aware of the issues and are in a stronger relationship with the manager.

The authors provided evidence for their hypotheses through the three studies. In Study 1, the authors collected survey data from 132 employees and 25 managers working in teams in a Fortune 500 company. In Study 2, 163 undergraduate students of a business school participated in a lab experiment and were assigned to work in a hierarchical setting. In Study 3, 440 US-based workers from a variety of jobs were recruited to participate in an online scenario experiment. Results from these studies showed that employees who possessed redundant information about work-related issues also experienced a diffusion of responsibility leading to a decreasing need of speaking up. Second, when the focal employee perceives that their peers have stronger relationships with the manager, they will be even less likely to voice.

Implications for Practice

Organizations should 1) realize that some positive organizational practices such as encouraging wide sharing of information and forming strong relationships can have a dark side, such as the voice bystander effect. However, organizations can 2) reduce employees’ sense of responsibility diffusion by emphasizing the uniqueness of each employee’s contribution to the group, no matter how close their peers’ relationships with mangers are or how much similar knowledge is shared within a group.

Location of Article This article is available online at: https://journals.aom.org/doi/abs/10.5465/amj.2017.0245 (abstract free, purchase full article)

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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