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Undermining free (workplace) speech

1 November 2016

The article at a glance

Many company leaders want workers to ‘speak up’ but their efforts are thwarted by abusive retribution waged by middle managers, says Harvard …

Many company leaders want workers to ‘speak up’ but their efforts are thwarted by abusive retribution waged by middle managers, says Harvard Business Review article authored at Cambridge Judge Business School.

No free speech

While many company leaders want their workers to “speak up”, such efforts are often thwarted by abusive retribution waged by middle managers against employees, says a Harvard Business Review article authored at Cambridge Judge Business School.

David De Cremer
Professor David De Cremer

“Leaders often undermine their own efforts to get employees to speak up” by failing to implement policies and training to encourage free communication by workers and proper responses by middle managers, says the article, entitled “Can employees really speak up without retribution?”

An ongoing study by the authors across a range of different industries found that the more employees were perceived by co-workers as showing “constructive resistance” toward their supervisors, the more likely the employees rated their supervisors as showing “abusive behaviour” toward them. The findings were based on 276 responses from 138 pairs of employee-co-workers in Belgium.

“Examples of abusive behaviour included asking whether the supervisor ridiculed them, were rude, invaded their privacy or gave them the silent treatment,” the Harvard Business Review article says.

So while many leaders say they want to encourage employees to speak freely by offering new ideas, suggesting product improvements or calling out unethical behaviour, their company’s culture doesn’t foster such open communications.

“Our research examines one of the reasons why up to 75 per cent of company ‘change processes’ fail, and that’s because policies sought by top leadership are not implemented lower down the company hierarchy,” says article co-author David De Cremer, KPMG Professor of Management Studies at Cambridge Judge.

“CEOs may seek to create a speaking-up culture with employee input in order to equip the company with the right attitude and skills to innovate. But, unfortunately, even if the top is open to hearing from all levels in the organisation, speaking-up cultures are mostly shaped by the behaviour of supervisors at lower levels.

“So our findings and new research line actually show that one important obstacle to building speaking-up cultures is not necessarily the top of the organisation, but the leadership at lower levels that has to deliver. They often are not open towards constructive challenges from their employees, are not able to deal with constructive criticism, and if not trained and informed well this may end up in a negative spiral in which supervisors do not even block out information but will also retaliate towards employees speaking up.”

The Harvard Business Review article is co-authored by Professor David De Cremer and three research colleagues associated with Cambridge Judge Business School – Leander De Schutter, Jeroen Stouten and Jess Zhang.

The article outlines steps that company leaders can take to create a speaking-up culture and avoid pitfalls. They include actively embracing constructive conflict by starting a debate rather than waiting for employees to speak up; being aware of cultural differences because blunt critiques are viewed differently in different cultures; and training middle managers in how to respond to employees who speak up.

Supervisors are advised to regulate their emotions before reacting to constructive criticism, by stating their point of view in a direct and constructive way while not letting “negative emotions come pouring out.” Employees are also counselled to regulate emotions while speaking up as early as possible to minimise frustrations, and to make clear that they are speaking out to create “joint value” while understanding the complexity of their supervisor’s job.

“Wise companies encourage both their managers and their employees to communicate candidly, without dysfunctional repercussions,” the article says.

This article was published on

1 November 2016.