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Making Sense of Organizational Members’ Silence

Recently, the head of Veteran’s Affairs, Eric Shinseki resigned in the wake of the recent scandal where VA hospitals around the country faked patient wait time data (Good, 2014). Shinseki, addressing the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans, remarked on the scandal (“Secretary Shinseki on Homeless Veterans,” 2014):

I was too trusting of some and I accepted reports as accurate that I now know to be misleading with regard to patient wait times. I can’t explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our health care facilities. (19:48)

Shineski went on to offer an apology and numerous corrective actions; however, not once did the General suggest improving the climate of silence in the organization (“Secretary Shinseki on Homeless Veterans,” 2014). This scandal began with a whistleblower, Dr. Sam Foote, who reported the situation. In an early interview, Dr. Foote remarked (Bronstein & Griffin, 2014):

I feel very sorry for the people who work at the Phoenix VA. They’re all frustrated. They’re all upset. They all wish they could leave ’cause they know what they’re doing is wrong. But they have families, they have mortgages and if they speak out or say anything to anybody about it, they will be fired and they know that. (p. 1)

Notably, Dr. Foote retired last year. In organizational life, barriers to information flow are common. However, upward communication can be particularly problematic for employees, especially when the message is negative (Conrad & Poole, 2012). Paradoxically, negative information is the least likely information to be communicated upward, and “precisely the kind of information supervisors most need to know” (Conrad & Poole, 2012, p. 80). What follows is an examination of this paradox through the lens of a recent (2012) study exploring the phenomenon of organizational silence.

Organizational silence is defined in the literature as employee’s refusal to communicate negative information upwards (Bisel & Arterburn, 2012). While the literature included extensive research on the consequences of organizational silence for organizations and their employees, the literature on the process of organizational silence is primarily conceptual and lacks validation through empirical research (Bisel & Arterburn, 2012). Bisel and Arterburn’s (2012) study sought to extend the literature through empirical investigation of how employees make sense of their decision to remain silent and withhold troubling information in patterned ways. By investigating this specific sense-making process, the researchers are hoping to add to Morrison and Milliken’s (2000) conceptual framework of organizational silence—a complex theoretical perspective describing a wide variety of variables that contribute to organizational silence. While recounting Morrison and Milliken’s (2000) in full detail is neither desirable nor practical within the limited context of this essay, explicating a high-level view of their framework will help situate the relevance of Bisel and Arterburn’s (2012) research findings to the literature on organizational silence.

Morrison and Milliken’s (2000) conceptual framework attempts to explain both the development of organizational silence and its effects—this discussion will focus on the former. In their framework, Morrison and Milliken (2000) describe a number of dynamics influencing the presence of organizational silence. The authors argue characteristics of the management team, organization, and environment work together to create a set of implicit managerial beliefs—that employees are self-interested, managers know best, and unity is positive and dissent is negative (Morrison & Milliken, 2000). These beliefs, coupled with manager’s fear of negative feedback contribute to the development of organizational structure, policies, and managerial practices that help create a climate of silence within an organization (Morrison & Milliken, 2000). Centralization of decision-making authority, lack of formal feedback channels, the tendency to reject or respond negatively to negative feedback, and manager’s tendency to avoid seeking negative feedback all contribute to a climate of the silence (Morrison & Milliken, 2000). Morrison and Milliken (2000) further suggest that employee’s collective sensemaking of the climate of silence and its antecedents further contribute to developing or reinforcing a climate of silence in what might be described as a vicious cycle.

Bisel and Arterburn’s (2012) research investigates the sensemaking process and how it contributes to reinforcing or encouraging the development of a climate of silence. Specifically, the authors research is concerned with identifying the patterned ways employees make sense of their decision to remain silent through a comparative constant analysis of the employee’s own words.

Constant comparative analysis is a form of inductive qualitative research developed by Glaser (1965) to simplify the process of generating new theory using qualitative research. The method requires researchers to examine each case relative to all other cases to look for similarities and differences that ultimately generate categories or themes (Glaser, 1965). As researchers generate categories through the coding process, researchers begin integrating the categories through the constant comparison process and eventually reducing them into fewer, higher order concepts that become the basis for building theory grounded in the data (Glaser, 1965).

For the purposes of gathering data exploring how employees made sense of their reasons for remaining silent, Bisel and Arterburn (2012) built an online survey that asked, “Have you ever been in a situation in which you wanted to provide negative feedback to your supervisor about your supervisor but decided against it? If so, why did you decide against it?” (p. 219).

Of the 226 working adults that participated in the survey, nearly 80% recalled a situation where they refrained from giving a supervisor negative information about that supervisor (Bisel & Arterburn, 2012)—a tangential, albeit significant finding insofar as it indicative of the pervasiveness of organizational silence in organizations. The reasons participants gave for their decisions were varied yet patterned: a) 70.42% predicted harm to themselves, b) 13.62% constructed the supervisor as responsible, c) 5.63% questioned their own expertise, d) 5.62% predicted supervisors’ deafness, and e) 4.69% constructed the timing as inopportune (Bisel & Arterburn, 2012).

Notably, more than two-thirds of respondents refrained from giving negative feedback because they predicted harm to themselves or weighed the potential costs and benefits of speaking up—calculating that the potential harm outweighed the potential benefit (Bisel & Arterburn, 2012).  One can easily imagine employees at the VA performing similar mental math.

Based on their findings, Bisel and Arterburn (2012) believe expectations of future harm or predicted supervisor behavior are instrumental to sensemaking in situations of uncertainty.   In addition, the authors believe in some cases, people draw on identity, rather than expectations as a sensemaking resource—particularly, when they construct the supervisor as responsible or question their expertise. However, those that justified their decision arguing it was an inopportune time to provide negative feedback do not fit neatly into Bisel and Arterburn’s (2012) sensemaking resource model of employee silence.

Bisel and Arterburn’s (2012) findings hold an important implication for managers who understand the importance of—and value—feedback loops. First, the manager’s behavior may not have a bearing on employee’s expectation of harm—the hierarchal relationship and identity expectations may be enough to impede negative information flow. Second, because the majority of employee silence behavior is linked to predictions of future behavior, managers must work hard to disconfirm or counter employee expectations in advance.

Thus, managers must proactively work to create a climate that encourages productive dissent and the flow of negative information. Several strategies come to mind. First, publically recognize those who make negative information known. Second, implement a 360-degree feedback system—most are anonymous. Third, implement an anonymous electronic suggestion box to capture near real-time feedback. Fourth, Set aside time for frank and open discussions with ground rules that support information flow. For example, a popular facilitation model is the Disney model, where meeting participants play different roles at different times, starting with being visionary, then a critic, and finally a realist. These types of facilitation models temporarily suspend role-based identities and hierarchy to stimulate creativity and lateral thinking. Finally, implement and publicize a formal ethics hotline as an opportunity of last resort. Of course, all of these strategies require a genuine willingness to accept negative feedback and actively work issues. The worst-case scenario is to pretend to be open and then fail to act on negative feedback. It is easy to imagine the problems at the VA might have come to light far sooner and far differently, had Shineski been sensitive to the problem of organizational silence and incorporated similar strategies.

Like any study, this study is subject to interpretation and critique with the aim of informing future research and advancing the literature—and like any study, this study has strengths and weaknesses. Specifically, this study has a number of strengths, including: a) a strong theoretical basis, b) research grounded in the words and experiences of adult workers, and c) findings that support the need to develop strategies to deal with organizational silence. Specifically, the widespread pervasiveness of the problem and the sheer number of working adults who do not speak up for fear of harm are indicate of the need for change.

In addition, this study has two specific weaknesses worthy of discussion. First, the authors explored the accounts of individual sensemaking, while Morrison and Milliken’s (2000) conceptual framework identifies collective sensemaking—or sensemaking between employees as the process that contributes to the development of a climate of silence. Perhaps, individual sensemaking could become the subject of collective talk between employees, but the authors are silent on the topic. At a minimum, this author would expect the disconnect between theories to appear in the limitations and future directions section. Conversely, the authors might have framed a second research question to discover whether employees share their experience with others in the work setting.

Second, as the authors recognize, the “study explores workers’ retrospective accounts” (Bisel & Arterburn, 2012, p. 224). However, the retrospective nature of the accounts may open the door to other processes influencing the participant’s justifications. For example, attribution theory might explain participant’s justifications of their decision equally well, or perhaps even more parsimoniously.

Despite this author’s criticism, Bisel and Arterburn’s (2012) findings are an important contribution to the literature. Specifically, Bisel and Arterburn’s (2012) findings hint at how organizational silence remains a widespread problem. Moreover, with more than 70% of participants justifying their silence for fear of harm suggests fear continues to exert significant influence on workplace decision-making. As indicated in the introduction, many people working at the VA were frustrated with practices they felt were wrong, and yet most did not break their silence. Only after retiring, did Dr. Foote break his silence and alert the public to the unethical practices at the VA hospital in Phoenix. In other words, only after Dr. Foote no longer needed to fear for his job, was he free to act according to conscience.




Bisel, R. S., & Arterburn, E. N. (2012). Making sense of organizational members’ silence: A sensemaking-resource model. Communication Research Reports, 29(3), 217-226.

Bronstein, S., & Griffin, D. (2014). A fatal wait: Veterans languish and die on a VA hospital’s secret list, from http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/23/health/veterans-dying-health-care-delays/

Conrad, C., & Poole, M. S. (2012). Strategic organizational communication in a global economy (7th ed.). West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Glaser, B. G. (1965). The constant comparative method of qualitative analysis. Social Problems, 12(4), 436-445. doi: 10.2307/798843

Good, C. (2014). Eric Shinseki Apologizes for VA Scandal: ‘I Was Too Trusting’, from http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2014/05/eric-shinseki-apologizes-for-va-scandal-i-was-too-trusting/

Morrison, E. W., & Milliken, F. J. (2000). Organizational silence: A barrier to change and development in a pluralistic world. The Academy of Management Review, 25(4), 706-725. doi: 10.2307/259200

Secretary Shinseki on Homeless Veterans. (2014). Washington DC: CSPAN.


About rjrock

Husband, Father, Friend, Business & Technology Executive, Student, Veteran, Leadership and Communication Scholar, Lifelong Learner, Sailor, Musician, Basketball Player, Camper, Harley Rider, Dog Lover, Lover of the Lived Experience, Coach, Mentor, Tutor


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