The Right Way for Employees to Speak Up and Have Their Voices Heard

Employees’ ability to speak up in the workplace—also known as employee voice—has been researched for many years. Most studies on employee voice have focused on the organizational antecedents that can either promote or hinder employee voice. As a result, the organizational benefits of employee voice are well documented. However, little attention has been given to how voice is expressed and whether the way employees express voice even matters.

For instance, if an employee has a suggestion that might challenge his or her manager’s authority but could ultimately benefit the organization as a whole, how direct or indirect should the employee be with the manager? Researchers (Lam, Lee, & Sui, 2019) investigate how a manger’s receptiveness to suggestions can be influenced by (1) the way an employee expresses voice and (2) the employee’s credibility.


First, the authors explored voice directness, which they define as the extent to which employees use clear and direct communication to convey ideas or suggestions. In contrast, employees who express voice less directly do so implicitly, using hints and reflective questions to indicate concerns.

To further examine the relationship between voice directness and managerial endorsement, the authors posit that the relationship may depend on certain employee characteristics, such as voice politeness and voicer credibility. Voice politeness involves using respectful language, and voicer credibility is the extent to which an employee appears competent and knowledgeable. The authors conducted three studies to explore these relationships.


In the first study, participants took an online survey. The results from this study indicated that voice directness is positively associated with managerial endorsement. In other words, the more direct and clearly articulated an idea or suggestion, the more likely a manager is to endorse it. Furthermore, the authors found that the interaction between voice directness and voicer credibility provides initial evidence that managers may be more likely to endorse voice expressed in a direct manner when the speaker is more credible.

The authors conducted a second study with a support service management company based in the United States. Similar to the first study, the authors also found that voice directness is positively associated with managerial endorsement and that voice directness is positively associated with higher levels of managerial endorsement when speakers are credible.

In addition, the second study failed to reveal a combined effect of voice directness and voicer politeness on managerial endorsement. The authors say this may stem from cultural influences. In a cultural setting that emphasizes task completion, like the United States, managers may be more concerned about the credibility of those expressing voice than about politeness or respectfulness. This led to a third study.

Following the same procedure in study two, the third study was conducted at a solar energy manufacturing firm in southwest China. Consistent with studies one and two, the authors found that voice directness is positively associated with managerial endorsement. However, unlike study two, the results from study three show that the association between voice directness and managerial endorsement is even stronger when employees speak up in a polite and respectful manner. In short, the results from studies two and three suggest that respect for managers may be important in work cultures such as China, where politeness is expected, but less important in work cultures such as the United States, where credibility has greater significance.


The results of this research provide several practical suggestions for employees who want their suggestions and ideas to be heard and endorsed by their managers. First, employees should be more direct when presenting their suggestions and ideas to their managers. This leaves little need for managers to “read between the lines” when employees are attempting to speak up.

Secondly, employees need to be cognizant of their specific workplace cultures before speaking up. Those whose workplace cultures are more task-oriented and individualistic should be mindful of their own credibility before speaking up in a direct manner. Employees in workplaces that culturally emphasize polite and respectful communication should approach their managers in a friendly manner if they want their suggestions to be taken seriously.


Lam, C. F., Lee, C., & Sui, Y. (2019). Say it as it is: Consequences of voice directness, voice politeness, and voicer credibility on voice endorsement. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(5), 642–658.