Breaking the silence using conversational practice

Elmira discusses conversational practice as a democratic tool that accommodates alternative voices, and can redress employee silence.

Are you guilty of a ‘conversation failure’? How often has the fear of what your co-workers think stopped you from saying something? Have you ever felt worried about losing your job if you share negative views on organisational decisions, values or about what customers are saying? A recent study from the training company VitalSmarts found that the majority of employees avoided crucial conversations, with only 1% feeling confident to speak up about their concerns in the workplace. Employers can create safe environments for conversational practice to redress this employee silence.

So what really stops employees from speaking up? Many employees choose to say nothing when suffering from workplace stress because they are scared of being labelled ‘weak’ or ‘incompetent’. There is a fear of retribution. Often organisations have a climate of ‘shooting the messenger’ when an employee expresses bad news. The imbalance of the employment deal, skewed in favour of the employer, is also likely to play a part in reducing employees’ freedom to voice their opinions. Organisations are trying to be more productive with fewer resources; especially after the 2008 global financial crisis. Employees, on the other hand, are not benefiting from this strategy, and their voices are often not being heard. A one-sided performance-oriented strategy such as organisations ‘doing more with less’ can create an anti-dialogical reality where employees’ views or interests are barely heard.

What are the dangers of employee silence? Employee silence can stifle innovative ways of thinking. Organisational issues can go undetected. Relationships between employers and employees can weaken. ‘Conversation failures’, such as the absence of regular one-to-one meetings and open door policies where employees can openly discuss their concerns about projects or other workplace issues with their managers, can cost organisations a loss in time and resources. Silent employees are less likely to feel motivated, stay committed to their jobs or go the extra mile because they feel their views do not matter. The power of employee voice is often neglected; voice should be seen as the centrepiece of employee engagement. Maggie Kuhn (1991) got it right when she said: ‘speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.’

So how can we break the silence? Conversational practice, a democratic process and plurivocal form of communication that accommodates alternative voices, can be a novel employee engagement strategy and pathway to performance where both parties (i.e. employer and employee) are given the opportunity to voice their opinions (Francis et al 2013; Elmi et al 2017). It can help to address the one-sided performance-oriented strategy that paid less interest to the employee’s views and concerns. The organisation can be seen as a ‘conversational arena’ in which employees feel confident in having conversations with their managers because they feel that speaking openly about workplace problems can help to improve things. Employers need to move away from ‘conversational failures’ and engage in conversational practice.


Elmi, F., Bakhshalian, E., Ahmadiyankooshkghazi, M., & Reddington, M. (2017) Developing a New Employment Deal for Local Government: Research Report

Francis, H.M., Ramdhony, A., Reddington, M., & Staines, H. (2013). Opening spaces for conversational practice: a conduit for effective engagement strategies and productive working arrangements. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 24 (14), 2713 – 2740.

Kuhn, M. (1991). No Stone Unturned: The Life and Times of Maggie Kuhn. New York: Ballantine Books

VitalSmarts. (2016). Costly Conversations: Why The Way Employees Communicate Will Make Or Break Your Bottom Line [Press release]. Retrieved from