Thursday, 20 October 2011

Offering pseudo opportunities for expression to employees leads to conflict and withdrawal of voice

Giving organisational members a say on work-related issues is well understood to heighten a sense of trust, respect and fairness. But a manager who invites opinions may not be planning to consider them. They may want to increase employee engagement through paying lip service to 'dialogue'; they may be an autocrat who feels obliged to appear consistent with the organisation's ethos; they may be reflexively doing something they were told to do at business school. So what happens when the opportunity to express is a case of 'pseudo voice' ... and the employees know it?

Gerdien de Vries, Baren Jehn and Bart Terwel investigated this issue by collecting survey data from 137 workers in a Dutch healthcare institution. Each participant rated the presence of two facets necessary for pseudo voice: did they have opportunity to express their voice? and did they believe their manager would disregard it? When the interaction between these was high, employees tended to give low scores to another measure, the extent to which they took opportunities to voice their opinions. In other words, perceiving deceit led to employees keeping their perspectives on issues to themselves.

The participants also rated the amount of intragroup conflict they experienced. De Vreis and colleagues suspected that when employees withdraw voice because they perceive the opportunity as a sham, conflict may increase: employees respond to this 'organisational illegitimacy' by refusing to play by the rules themselves, or squabble with colleagues in a displaced attempt to reclaim some kind of control. The data duly demonstrated this: participants who perceived pseudo voice experienced more team conflict than those who believed their managers were sincere.

Providing employees with voice is important; as well as its cohesive effects, it provides the organisation with a diversity of perspectives. As its authors note, this study is useful as it "provides a better understanding of the conditions under which offering voice opportunity to employees is likely to backfire" - namely, when they are seen as insincere and deceptive. It's notable that in this study, managers indicated a disregard for voice higher than employees suspected, suggesting if anything the employees were credulous rather than cynical towards management contempt for their opinions. But Machiavellian managers who think an unread suggestion box is a worthwhile gamble should beware; as this study shows, the costs to organisational functioning can be substantial.

(Thanks to reader Chris Woock for bringing this article to the Digest's attention.)

ResearchBlogging.orgVries, G., Jehn, K., & Terwel, B. (2011). When Employees Stop Talking and Start Fighting: The Detrimental Effects of Pseudo Voice in Organizations Journal of Business Ethics DOI: 10.1007/s10551-011-0960-4


  1. Paragraph 3 - line 4/5, should read "by refusing"

  2. I have to say this is the kind of research that saddens me as an occupational psychologist. That anyone should even consider it worthy to ask the question, "Is it OK (in terms of business outcomes) for management to be insincere in their communications and offer 'pseudo opportunities'?" exposes rather starkly whose interests this kind of research serves.

    It doesn't matter a jot whether employees spot the sham and react negatively, or whether they're suckered in by it. It's still plain wrong, either way. If occupational psychology is seen as giving even a sniff of consideration and legitimacy to this kind of managerial dishonesty, then it brings shame on the discipline and the profession.

    [And the defence that "Look, the results show that managers should be good, honest guys, so we're reinforcing that behaviour" doesn't wash. This is not an empirical matter. It's a moral and ethical one.]

  3. In response to David Jennings' comment. I fully agree that this is an ethical and moral matter. However, having recently conducted a couple of large studies involving hundreds of health professionals on a different topic, we have received (unexpected and actually un-asked) data back telling us how demotivating it is for the staff to give their views and not see any change. Unfortunately this isn't a perfect world and this type of managerial tact happens. If there is empirical support against this 'pseudo-voice' then at least there is a first step towards improvement, rather than paying lip-service to staff's opinions. Empirical research doesn't always need to have a 'WOW' finding - often the more applied findings such as this one can lead to greater change in the workplace. Also, I don't think the aim of the paper was to find out if employees 'spot the sham'; at least not by my reading of the paper...

  4. Don't get me wrong, I'm not making a blanket anti-management point. I've been a manager, and there have been times when I've consulted employees and not implemented what they asked for. There's a bunch of possible reasons for that, and they're not all down to managerial deceit or bad faith: sometimes consultation brings up proposals that are impractical, wrong-headed or even unjust (in my opinion, as a manager). Having to explain that was not popular and no doubt demotivating.

    So of course I understand that "this isn't a perfect world". My point was that the research seems (from my reading of this summary - I admit I haven't read the full paper) to be framing the research question as "Are pseudo opportunities an efficacious strategy for managers?" And I'm saying occupational psychologists shouldn't be asking this kind of question. It doesn't matter whether it's efficacious or not, it's wrong, don't do it.

  5. Hi David

    I agree that there clearly is an ethical component to this area - as there is for many of the articles I cover.

    For example, from this piece (
    arrogance is defined as when you "exaggerate your importance and disparage others"; I think we'd agree that this behaviour was wrong, and we shouldn't do it. But I think it's also interesting to know other features beyond the ethical. How is the behaviour perceived by others? What other traits is it linked to? And these are the kinds of questions that occupational psychology is better equipped to answer; we have no special standing in terms of morality.

    To my mind, the research question is "Given that pseudo opportunities for voice occur, what can we understand about their consequences?" which seems to me a fair question. A bit like how a botanist might ask "Given industrial rates of pollution occur, how are the earth's lungs being affected?" I don't think they are endorsing it either way.

    I'd also add that pseudo voice doesn't need to be highly premeditated, it's just a description of scenarios where voice is invited but never properly considered. As such it can be an innocent outcome whose risks aren't fully considered. This could have been clearer in my opening paragraph - the reference to "reflexively doing something they were told to do at business school" was meant to carry some of this - i.e., taking 'listen to your employees' as a hard rule, but applying it when you have no capacity to process that information. I think that nuance was lost in a rewrite.

    I'm glad these things matter to you David, they matter to me too.


  6. Hi Alex,

    Thanks for this well-measured response. To your point, 'the research question is "Given that pseudo opportunities for voice occur, what can we understand about their consequences?"' Well, yes, that's a perfectly reasonable alternative to my reading. Our differences are down to the finer, imponderable points of interpretation, and, had I not been in an unusually cranky mood when I first read and commented on the post, I might have read it your way...

    To the extent that there's a deeper undertow to my crankiness, it's just that your post about this research brought home to me again how much occ psy research addresses managers as an audience, as though they were the only 'decision makers' who had any say in organisational life. The research positions employees as fodder for providing data, but doesn't seem to speak to them about what *they* can do to take control of situations where they're offered pseudo opportunities.

    Take for example, the conclusion "Providing employees with voice is important; as well as its cohesive effects, it provides the organisation with a diversity of perspectives." Yes, those are the benefits *for the organisation*. What about the benefits for the employees? They're not worth mentioning? It's unfair of me to pick on this one particular example, but it does seem that in a general sense this kind of research also denies employees a voice. By not addressing what they can do in this context to advance their interests, it denies them agency and power.

    This is actually all old stuff that has been gone over a long time ago, and written better, by people like Wendy Hollway ( So, apologies for being a long-winded bore about it. Every time I try and close it down in my mind, I get carried away with crankiness again...