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New Research Identifies Whom Employees Should Talk to at Work

Choosing whom to speak to greatly impacts how ideas are heard and implemented in the workplace

by Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences
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BALTIMORE, MD — Is speaking up at work worth it? New research in the INFORMS journal Organization Science finds that new ideas can be heard and implemented in the office, but it depends on whom employees talk to.

“There are two characteristics employees should consider when choosing who to talk to: hierarchy (choosing a person that has the authority and resources to make changes happen) and competence. That is, choosing a person that has the know-how to make change happen,” says Ethan Burris of the University of Texas at Austin.

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The study, “The Agency to Implement Voice: How Target Hierarchical Position and Competence Changes the Relationship Between Voice and Individual Performance,” reiterates that some employees make the mistake of speaking up to someone who simply does not have the power or standing to initiate effective change.

In the study, when employees spoke to their managers or bosses who had the authority and resources to address an issue, this led to a 12–15 percent increase in implementing ideas and subsequent sales performance.

Burris alongside co-authors Elizabeth McClean of Cornell University, Tim Quigley of the University of Georgia and Jim Detert of the University of Virginia, say employees should avoid speaking sideways—to peers who have no more power than they have to fix challenges.

“Speaking to peers was associated with a 10 percent decrease in implemented ideas and subsequent sales performance,” says McClean, a professor in the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell. “If employees must speak sideways, they should target their most competent peers with the most knowledge and influence to help get ideas carried out.”

The researchers emphasize that when speaking up, at work or elsewhere, who you talk to influences not just the conversation, but also its outcomes.

- This press release was originally published on the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences website