How to Speak Up Like a Leader

Topic(s): gender, leadership
Publication: Academy of Management Journal, 2018
Article: The Social Consequences of Voice: An Examination of Voice Type and Gender on Status and Subsequent Leader Emergence
Authors: E.J. McClean, S.R. Martin, K.J. Emich, Col. T. Woddruff
Reviewed by: McKenzie Preston

One way to be an effective leader is to generate and communicate ideas that progress teams and organizations toward a common goal. When leaders, or aspiring leaders, ideate and communicate their ideas to others, what they say may be as important as how they say it. Based on a speaker’s communication to a team or organization, others evaluate the effectiveness of the speaker as a leader. This article (McClean, Martin, Emich, & Woodruff, 2018) discusses how different approaches to speaking up, or “voice behaviors,” are related to how others evaluate a speaker as a leader. This article also discusses how the evaluation of two types of voice behaviors might be different when a male enacts the voice behavior compared to when a female enacts the voice behavior.


Employee voice behaviors are acts of speaking up aimed at influencing a team or organization. There are two prominent types of voice behavior—promotive voice and prohibitive voice. Promotive voice refers to the expression of new ideas or suggestions that seek to improve the functioning of a work group or organization. Alternatively, prohibitive voice describes speaking up about concerns related to potentially harmful work group or organization practices. In other words, promotive voice is motivated by directing a group toward growth, while prohibitive voice is concerned with guiding a group away from misconduct or risk.


Given the increasing interest in understanding how leaders emerge in organizations, the researchers sought to understand if voice behavior was related to leader emergence, or others’ evaluation of an individual as a leader. Through two studies, the researchers explored whether a speaker’s voice behavior in a group setting was related to group members’ evaluation of the speaker as a leader. They also examined whether the speaker’s gender played a role in group members’ evaluation.

The findings of the study were straightforward. Speakers who engaged in promotive voice—speaking up about growth opportunities—were evaluated more positively as leaders than speakers who engaged in prohibitive voice—speaking up about concerns. However, women who engaged in promotive voice were evaluated less favorably as leaders than men who engaged in the same promotive voice behavior.


This study provides individuals with insight about how they can gain respect and influence within organizations. The researchers suggest that speaking up a lot may not be enough to emerge as a leader—it also depends on how you speak up and who you are. To be viewed as a leader, individuals should speak up in a way that aims to move a group toward a goal instead of speaking up solely about concerns related to the group.

These findings also suggest that the benefits of speaking up may not be equal for everyone. The researchers found that women do not receive the same benefits as men when they engage in promotive voice behaviors. The researchers recommend that managers explore approaches to address this inequality. Specifically, the researchers provide two potential tactics for countering this inequality. First, managers can document each time women engage in promotive voice behaviors to make women’s contributions to the group more salient. Second, managers can help amplify the voice of women by repeating an idea presented by a woman and ensuring the credit is given to the woman speaking up.


McClean, E., Martin, S., Emich, K., & Woodruff, T. (2018). The Social Consequences of Voice: An Examination of Voice Type and Gender on Status and Subsequent Leader Emergence. Academy of Management Journal. 61(5).