Why employees are afraid to speak up

In recent years the workplace has seen a shift in expectations and culture due to Covid 19 pandemic changes and economic impacts leading to a shift to an increase in hybrid and remote working.

The conversations around the water cooler or in person meetings and going out for lunch with colleagues within the department or building have been replaced with conference calls over zoom, private data rooms and virtual hangouts.

Speaking up in meetings or in the office may have been something that you found difficult when in the office or in remote conference calls. Those who speak up are generally seen to be team players, elevating good ideas, flagging questionable behaviour, decision making. Speaking up is how teams arrive at the smartest outcomes.

However, data shows that people rarely speak up when they or a peer was not pulling their weight. The survey also found that 40% of people estimated they wasted two weeks or more ruminating about the problem over which they stayed silent.

There is a gap between what people know to be right and what they actually do. If you can’t communicate with your managers and colleagues, you can’t develop the relationships that are necessary to combat the issues that are arising in the workplace.

Speaking up can pose a problem

Speaking up can pose a problem for people if the organisational culture around them does not encourage open dialogue. Feelings of unease, anxiety and fear are not uncommon in the workplace and these feelings and emotions can take over when feeling socially threatened. Our brains divert resources away from high level thought to heighten our senses in preparation to flee.

Research from the University of Pennsylvania explores why employees tend to be uncomfortable when speaking up, the study found that the link between speaking up and staying silent is not as clear cut as previously thought. The study found that we are likely to speak up if we are confident that our ideas will have a positive impact on the organisation and the team. By contrast, silence is more common if we are not confident enough to take interpersonal risks at work or if we fear we will be shunned for speaking up.

The study delved into the differences between speaking up and the consequences of staying silent in addition to the motivations. It is vital managers are able to address both voice and silence to ensure psychological safety.

Employees remain silent because they:

  • Fear being ostracized
  • Don’t want to be embarrassed
  • Want to avoid negative remarks
  • Feel like speaking up is inappropriate

Creating psychological safety

Creating psychological safety in the workplace is a modern goal that allows people to flourish without fear of retribution for mistakes or setbacks. From an organisation behaviour perspective, psychological safety is important because it can enhance morale, productivity, and team effectiveness.

Psychological safety in turn can help people at work feel valued, when a team member senses they are safe to make mistakes, engage in risk-taking and share ideas freely, they can feel more liberated to show up and be their best selves.

Shift the mindset

The key to encouraging people to speak up is to ensure they are in an environment where they believe they can have a positive impact on them, their team and the wider organisation. If they lack this belief, then it makes speaking up less appealing.

Managers should be mindful to create a culture of open dialogue and brainstorming without judgement or discouragement if ideas are not seen as valuable. People often decide to hold back an idea even more in virtual meetings where people are highly aware of time limits or can feel overwhelmed with zoom fatigue.

The key is for employees to truly believe that their speaking up can have a positive impact on them, their team and the wider organisation. Managers need to ensure that employees feel confident that they won’t suffer any negative repercussions for speaking up. Strategies to help reduce silence on issues that might otherwise induce fear among employees should be monitored and reported. Any suggestions or ideas are received in a mindful way to enable open dialogue and any unethical behaviour is dealt with sensitively.


If you can’t communicate with your team, your managers or organisation without the threat of being confronted or shut down then innovation and productivity are likely to be impacted within the organisation. Creating a culture of open dialogue encourages people to feel valued at work and able to engage in sharing ideas freely which creates a positive impact.

If we want our employees to feel safer speaking up, then more needs to be done to provide an environment and culture to support them to do so.

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