Rather than speaking up when they see something wrong or have good suggestions, many employees feel that keeping their mouths shut is the best way to go.

For their research, the authors conducted three studies: a laboratory experiment, a survey of health care workers and a survey of employees in a wide range of industries. They discovered that employees often choose to withhold information about important issues or concerns at work, which can cause problems to persist and escalate. The authors found that a key factor contributing to silence is an employee's perception that he or she has little power in relation to others at work.One of the reasons for being so tight-lipped can be attributed to a belief by employees that regardless of what they say, they feel they aren't powerful enough to actually make a difference, according to a new study to be published in the Personnel Psychology journal.

"A low sense of power makes people feel less confident and optimistic, meaning that employees will be less likely to believe that speaking up will make a difference," Elizabeth Morrison, one of the study's authors and a professor at New York Univ.'s Stern School of Business, told Business News Daily. "This feeling of 'why bother?' has been found to be a strong inhibitor to speaking up."

Employees also tend to stay silent on many issues because they fear some sort of reprisal, Morrison said.

"A low sense of power makes people more likely to see speaking up as risky or dangerous," Morrison said.

Not speaking up, however, especially when wrongdoings are seen, can have disastrous consequences, the authors said. Among the examples they point to include the implosion of Enron, the crash of the space shuttle Columbia, the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State and the faulty ignition switch debacle at GM.

"In each case, there were people who were aware of serious issues or problems, but they failed to speak up and the situation escalated," the study's authors wrote in their research.

To combat this problem of zipped lips among employees, it is critical that managers foster a work environment that reduces feelings of powerlessness among employees, according to the research. Morrison said supervisors must convey genuine openness to input in order to encourage more upward communication.

Morrison said research suggests the main things supervisors can do to encourage more speaking up by employees include: 

  • Consultation: If supervisors regularly seek input, employees will be more likely to voluntarily offer input even when not asked.
  • Follow up: If employees offer input and it repeatedly falls on deaf ears and fails to lead to any action, they will tend to shut down over time.
  • Acknowledge weaknesses and mistakes: Humility and the ability to admit that one is imperfect go a long way toward creating a safe environment for employees to offer criticism or point out problems.

Additionally, anything that helps to reduce the status and power differences between supervisors and employees can also help create an environment where employees are more likely to speak up, Morrison said.

Morrison and co-authors Kelly See, a New York Univ. professor, and Caitlin Pan, a lecturer at SIM Univ. in Singapore, said the goal of their research was to better understand why employees don't speak up more often and how this tendency to withhold important information can be mitigated, so that hopefully more problems and errors in the workplace can be avoided.