David Maxfield has written a good article for Harvard Business Review titled, "How a Culture of Silence Eats Away at Your Company." He argues that people often say that they would speak up if they had a serious concern or dissenting opinion at work, but in an actual situation, they tend to be much more reluctant. Unsurprisingly, people say one thing and do another. My experience discussing this topic with many managers in a variety of industries confirms Maxfield's observation. Maxfield goes on to explain a simple experiment he conducted on this topic:
At VitalSmarts, we’ve researched the propensity for people to stay silent before. In a previous study, we asked people what they would do if someone cut in front of them in line. Most people said they’d promptly and skillfully tell the person to head to the back of the line. But when we put their predictions to the test, we found something else. We went into a busy mall with confederates and a hidden camera to see what people really do when faced with a line-cutter. Here’s what we found: The line-cutting victims stand around looking frustrated yet never say a word. A few make dirty faces behind our confederates’ backs or complain to their neighbor. In our study, only one in 25 spoke up.
What's the downside of not speaking up? Naturally, the most crucial danger is that key risks will remain hidden in organizations. Bad news will not rise to the top. In the most extreme circumstances, a catastrophic failure could occur. Consider the costs of people not speaking up at GM with regard to the ignition switch scandal, or the similar dynamic that occurred at Volkswagen with regard to the emissions testing scandal.
Maxfield argues, though, that there are other very real costs of a culture of silence. He makes the point that people don't simply remain silent. They waste a great deal of time and energy in their frustration over the issue. Here's an excerpt from his article:
Instead of speaking up in these situations, our subjects admitted to engaging in one or more resource-sapping behaviors including: complaining to others (78%), doing extra or unnecessary work (66%), ruminating about the problem (53%), or getting angry (50%). These behaviors aren’t just unhelpful; they’re costly. We found the average person wasted 7 days complaining, doing unnecessary work, ruminating about the problem, or getting angry — instead of speaking up. A shocking 40% of our respondents admitted to wasting two weeks or more.