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Sunday, October 31, 2021

Silenced by Fear: The Nature, Sources, and Consequences of Fear at Work

Kish-Gephart, J. J. et al. (2009)
Research in Organizational Behavior, 29, 163-193. 


In every organization, individual members have the potential to speak up about important issues, but a growing body of research suggests that they often remain silent instead, out of fear of negative personal and professional consequences. In this chapter, we draw on research from disciplines ranging from evolutionary psychology to neuroscience, sociology, and anthropology to unpack fear as a discrete emotion and to elucidate its effects on workplace silence. In doing so, we move beyond prior descriptions and categorizations of what employees fear to present a deeper understanding of the nature of fear experiences, where such fears originate, and the different types of employee silence they motivate. Our aim is to introduce new directions for future research on silence as well as to encourage further attention to the powerful and pervasive role of fear across numerous areas of theory and research on organizational behavior.


Fear, a powerful and pervasive emotion, influences human perception, cognition, and behavior in ways and to an extent that we find underappreciated in much of the organizational literature. This chapter draws from a broad range of literatures, including evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, sociology, and anthropology, to provide a fuller understanding of how fear influences silence in organizations. Our intention is to provide a foundation to inform future theorizing and research on fear’s effects in the workplace, and to elucidate why people at work fear challenging authority and thus how fear inhibits speaking up with even routine problems or suggestions for improvement.

Our review of the literature on fear generated insights with the potential to extend theory on silence in several ways.  First, we proposed that silence should be differentiated based on the intensity of fear experienced and the time available for choosing a response. Both non-deliberative, low-road silence and conscious but schema-driven silence differ from descriptions in extant literature of defensive silence as intentional, reasoned and involving an expectancy-like mental calculus. Thus, our proposed typology (in Fig. 2) suggests the need for content-specific future theory and research. For example, the description of silence as the result of extended, conscious deliberation may fit choices about whistleblowing and major issue selling well, while not explaining how individuals decide to speak up or remain silent in more routine high fear intensity or high immediacy situations. We also theorized that as a natural outcome of humans’ innate tendency to avoid the unpleasant characteristics of fear, employees may develop a type of habituated silence behavior that is largely unrecognized by them.

We expanded understanding of the antecedents of workplace silence by explaining in detail how prior (individual and societal) experiences affect the perceptions, appraisals, and outcomes of fear-based silence. Noting that the fear of challenging authority has roots in the biological mechanisms developed to aid survival in early humans, we argued that this prepared fear is continually developed and reinforced through a lifetime of experiences across most social institutions (e.g., family, school, religion) that implicitly and explicitly convey messages about authority relationships.Over time, these direct and indirect learning experiences, coupled with the characteristics of an evolutionary-based fear module, become the memories and beliefs against which current stimuli in moments of possible voice are compared.

Finally, we proposed two factors to help explain why and how certain individuals speak up to authority despite experiencing some fear of doing so. Though the deck is clearly stacked in favor of fear and silence, anger as a biologically-based emotion and voice efficacy as a learned belief in one’s ability to successfully speak up in difficult voice situations may help employees prevail over fear – in part, through their influence on the control appraisals that are central to emotional experience.