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Breaking through the ‘hear, see and speak no evil’ attitude in the workplace

03 October 2017
Source: Nationale Beeldbank

Employees can enter into discussion with their supervisor in order to change and improve work-related issues. While this kind of upwards influence is useful, it also entails risks for the employees concerned. Ran Zhang studied the complex motivation that drives subordinate staff to raise work-related problems with their supervisor. He will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 12 October.

Zhang studied data on 150 hotel employees in the Netherlands and 1267 R&D employees in a South Korean factory. He found that employees’ goals to develop competence and improve performance (mastery goals) and to demonstrate that competence and superior performance (performance goals) are both important sources of motivation when it comes to raising matters with a supervisor. Mastery goals and performance goals drive employees in different ways to talk to their supervisor. Zhang concludes that employees’ mastery goals lead to upwards influence by triggering an intrinsic interest that these goals evoke in detecting problems and in developing and discussing solutions with the supervisor. Performance goals enhance the effect of mastery goals on upwards influence by motivating employees to use discussions with their supervisor to demonstrate the superior value of their input and therefore their superior competence.

Low status

Employees who pursue both mastery and performance goals are most strongly motivated to identify and raise problems at work. Unfortunately, however, the combination of strong mastery and performance goals does not result in this desired behaviour among all employees. Employees with low standing and prestige at work (low status) find themselves unable to speak out about problems they have observed and they choose to remain silent. Therefore, in addition to strong mastery and performance goals, employees need to have sufficient status in order to actually take the step of raising problems with their supervisor.

Practical recommendations

A practical recommendation arising from these findings is that managers should explicitly invite highly motivated, low-status employees to discuss their concerns, opinions and suggestions about problems and issues at work. These employees may have valuable information, but are inclined to remain silent because of their low status. A further recommendation is that organizations should create a working climate that encourages and facilitates both the development of competence and the demonstration of performance. Zhang shows that it is this combination of strong mastery and performance goals that gives employees an additional motivation to detect, address and solve at an early stage a wide range of problems, mistakes and deficiencies in the work environment.

More information

Please see the blog on the website of our Centre of Expertise HRM&OB.

Last modified:03 October 2017 10.15 a.m.

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