Why It Is Hard For Managers To Convey That They Are Open To Information About Misconduct, And What They Can Do About This

by Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison, PhD

Most managers will say that they want to receive information about issues and problems in their organization, including information about misconduct.  They wish to see themselves as the type of manager who is open to input from employees, and they know that it is important to receive information about problems in a timely manner.  They claim to have “an open door policy.”  Nonetheless, when it comes to actual behavior, far too many managers are not nearly as open as they aim or profess to be.  Rather than responding in a receptive manner when employees raise concerns, they respond with annoyance, hostility or defensiveness.  They deny or dismiss the information.  They pretend to listen, but then fail to act. 

A consistent and disturbing theme from people who have internally reported misconduct is that the information “fell on deaf ears,” or worse, that they suffered negative career consequences for speaking up.  Studies have also shown that it is common, across many different types of workplaces, for employees to feel that speaking up is futile, or that they cannot speak up about a suspected violation without fear of reprisal.[1]  As a result, regardless of how open managers think that they are, employees often choose to keep mum when they have concerns.

What accounts for these beliefs and behaviors related to raising issues?  In some cases, they may stem from poor management or lack of ethical leadership.  There are managers who truly do not want to know what is going on in their organizations. Yet even managers with good intentions, who care about ethics and open communication, may find it hard to be receptive and responsive to information about misconduct.  What they do when confronted with such information diverges from what they believe or say that they would do

To understand this, we need to understand something about human psychology.  Negative information, such as information about problems or potential losses, is often experienced as a threat.  As humans, we are wired to respond to threat in one of two ways:  fight (e.g. deny, defend, lash out) or flight (e.g., ignore).  These are automatic responses, meaning that it can be difficult for managers to be receptive to input from employees, and to convey that openness in a way that employees find convincing.  Without even realizing it, managers may behave in ways that make people feel that raising concerns is futile or risky.  This may be particularly true for those who feel less confident or secure in their position, as these feelings are likely to intensify defensive reasoning and routines.[2]

The fact that managers are typically in positions of power, where they have control over resources and decisions, may also contribute to these dynamics.  A number of studies have shown that being in a position of power, or even feeling that one has power over others, causes people to be less receptive to input.  For example, power has been shown to reduce advice taking.[3]  It may also contribute to managers giving off “vibes” that they do not want to hear about issues or problems.

In addition, the typically demanding nature of managers’ jobs may contribute to them behaving in ways that convey lack of openness to input from employees.  Managers are often bombarded by competing pressures, often with lack of time or resources to fully attend to the panoply of problems and possibilities that land on their desks.  These pressures may cause them to act in ways that convey that they are not open to upward communication. For example, when people feel rushed or pressured, they tend to be more abrupt and to listen less.

So what can managers do to counter-act these forces, and in so doing, encourage employees to come forward when they witness or become aware of wrongdoing?  The most important advice is to regularly seek out employees’ opinions, feedback, concerns and ideas, even about small things.[4]  This will help to create a workplace climate where raising concerns is natural, and people will be more likely to venture forward when serious issues arise.  Research has shown, in fact, that actively soliciting input may be twice as effective in increasing employees’ willingness to speak up when they have concerns than simply being open to input.[5] 

Managers also need to pay careful attention to how they respond when employees do raise issues and concerns.  If the response is defensive or unwelcoming, this will send a strong message about the futility and/or risk of speaking up, thereby stifling future communication.  Even if the information conveyed is faulty or misinformed, and even if action is not warranted or feasible, it is important to convey appreciation for employees coming forward and sharing their input or concerns. 

It is also important to close the loop with employees.  In other words, managers need to make sure that they let their employees know what happened in response to their communication, and what follow-up steps will be taken to address their concerns.  In the absence of such follow-up, employees may assume that their input was ignored, which will intensify the belief that speaking up is futile.

Another piece of advice is to be aware of status and hierarchy cues, and work to downplay those cues.  The more salient the power differential between employees and their managers, the more likely employees are to remain silent when they have concerns.  In fact, one study found that an important predictor of whether healthcare workers spoke up to doctors with concerns about patient safety was their personal sense of power in relation to others in their workplace.[6]  Although managers cannot generally change the reality of the organizational hierarchy, they can use language that is more egalitarian, and avoid behavior and body language that accentuates their higher level of power and status. 

Lastly, managers should be cautious about relying too heavily on anonymous reporting hotlines.  Anonymous channels tend to reinforce the belief that speaking up is dangerous, which may actually reduce the likelihood of employees doing so.   Although anonymous reporting mechanisms may play a valuable role in surfacing illegal or unethical behavior, they should not be the only (or even the primary) means for employees to call out misconduct.


[1] Morrison, E.W. (2014).  Employee voice and silence.  Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1: 173-197.

[2] Fast, N.J., Burris, E.R., & Bartel, C.A. (2014). Managing to stay in the dark: Managerial self-efficacy, ego-defensiveness, and the aversion to employee voice. Academy of Management Journal, 57: 1013-1034.

[3] See, K.E., Morrison, E.W., Rothman, N.B., & Soll, J.B. (2011). The detrimental effects of power on confidence, advice taking and accuracy. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 116: 272-285.

[4] Tangirala, S., & Ramanujam, R. (2012). Ask and you shall hear: Examining the relationship between manager consultation and employee voice. Personnel Psychology, 65: 251-282.

[5] Detert, JR. & Burris, E.R. (2016).  Can your employees really speak freely?  Harvard Business Review, 94: 80-87.

[6] Morrison, E.W. & See, K.E. (2015). An Approach-Inhibition Model of Employee Silence: The Joint Effects of Personal Sense of Power and Target Openness. Personnel Psychology, 68: 547-580.


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