Voice Flows To And Around Leaders: Understanding When Units Are Helped Or Hurt By Employee Voice

Date

2013-12

Authors

Detert, J. R.
Burris, E. R.
Harrison, D. A.
Martin, S. R.

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Abstract

In two studies, we develop and test theory about the relationship between speaking up, one type of organizational citizenship behavior, and unit performance by accounting for where employee voice is flowing. Results from a qualitative study of managers and professionals across a variety of industries suggest that voice to targets at different formal power levels (peers or superiors) and locations in the organization (inside or outside a focal unit) differs systematically in terms of its usefulness in generating actions to a unit's benefit on the issues raised and in the likely information value of the ideas expressed. We then theorize how distinct voice flows should be differentially related to unit performance based on these core characteristics and test our hypotheses using time-lagged field data from 801 employees and their managers in 93 units across nine North American credit unions. Results demonstrate that voice flows are positively related to a unit's effectiveness when they are targeted at the focal leader of that unitwho should be able to take actionwhether from that leader's own subordinates or those in other units, and negatively related to a unit's effectiveness when they are targeted at coworkers who have little power to effect change. Together, these studies provide a structural framework for studying the nature and impact of multiple voice flows, some along formal reporting lines and others that reflect the informal communication structure within organizations. This research demonstrates that understanding the potential performance benefits and costs of voice for leaders and their units requires attention to the structure and complexity of multiple voice flows rather than to an undifferentiated amount of voice.

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Citation

James R. Detert, Ethan R. Burris, David A. Harrison, and Sean R. Martin. Administrative Science Quarterly Vol. 58, No. 4 (Dec., 2013), pp. 624-668. DOI:10.1177/0001839213510151