We can probably agree that speaking up at work is a good idea when employees have constructive things to say. They might have insight into how something can be done more efficiently or an idea that leads to better results. Researchers in this study (Liu, Tangirala, Lam, Chen, Jia, Huang, 2015) focused on this type of speaking up—the kind that involves making productive suggestions—as opposed to criticism. Interestingly, they found that good moods go a long way in determining whether someone will speak up at work.
WHEN THE LISTENER IS IN A GOOD MOOD
The two part study consisted of a scenario-based lab experiment (“what would you do…”) and a real-world evaluation of employees and their tendencies. Results show that when the listener or “target” is in a good mood, people were more likely to speak up. This is because of psychological safety, meaning the speaker felt safe in making a suggestion. When the listener is not in a good mood, psychological safety is lower. In this case, the speaker may fear rejection, being ignored, or being made fun of, and is more likely to choose to remain silent.
The authors also found that the effects of mood are more pronounced in two situations. The first is when the relationship between the speaker and the listener is poor. If it were a good relationship, the speaker might always feel safe in making suggestions. When the relationship is bad, people rely more on moods to guide their behavior, as the moods will signal whether or not now is a good and safe time to speak up.
The second factor that made people rely more on the moods of the listener is when the speaker had a lower social status than the listener. When someone has a higher social status, co-workers are even more afraid of potential ridicule, retaliation, and other harmful outcomes if the comment is not welcome or seen as threatening. This is because the ridicule or retaliation is coming from someone who is regarded as important or who controls resources that might affect the speaker. That’s when people rely on the listener’s mood to an even greater extent.
When organizations desire improvement, especially for creative processes, they can benefit from employees speaking up. Oftentimes it’s the employees who are directly involved with the work who are best able to suggest process improvements. Nevertheless, this research reminds us that employees don’t just speak up because they are the “speaking up kind,” or are “bold and not afraid to be heard.” Instead, managers need to be aware of the subtle situational factors that can lead toward either encouraging or discouraging speaking up. Sometimes, as in this study, very subtle factors can lead to very different outcomes in the workplace. It might make us want to think twice about strolling around the office in a very bad mood.