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Afraid to Speak Your Mind at Work? So Are Many of Your Colleagues

Half of respondents say conversations at work are 'less than great,' survey shows

A group of business people sitting at a table with their heads in their hands.

​At your weekly meeting, a manager asks for feedback on the speakers she hired for your organization's annual conference. You thought they were disorganized and dull. But your manager might take that criticism personally, so you keep your mouth shut.

Your supervisor sends an e-mail asking for "data on our employees' health benefits choices." That could mean any number of things, but because she's busy and typically impatient when asked too many questions, you try to interpret what she wants so you can get back to work. 

Lack of communication—and miscommunication—may be inevitable in the workplace. But new research released by Fierce Conversations and Quantum Workplace demonstrates that not only are both commonplace, but they can also be detrimental to employee morale and productivity.

The research is based on a survey of over 1,300 employees, conducted from June 6-16, that captured people's perceptions about communication in the workplace, and how lack of communication and miscommunication affect employee engagement. Fierce Conversations is a communications training company based in Seattle. Quantum Workplace is an employee feedback software company based in Omaha, Neb.

Among the findings:

Only about half of respondents said their conversations with colleagues or managers were "excellent" or "great." The other half rated their conversations as "less than great."

"For many of us, the biggest barrier to having high-quality conversations is that we're afraid to share what we're really thinking and feeling," the research authors wrote. "We chicken out … when the opportunity is on the table to voice our concerns. Being real is scary, but it's the unreal conversations that should scare us because they're incredibly expensive. A problem exists whether we talk about it or not."

The more that workers perceived their conversations with co-workers or managers to be of high quality, the more engaged they were at work. Employees who rated their conversations with co-workers poorly had a particularly low level of employee engagement.

"Disengaged employees don't understand how they fit into the future, how managers view their performance or where the company is headed," said Anthony Edwards, a Quantum Workplace client advisor who was quoted in the report. "It's not surprising that those who have high-quality conversations have a better connection to their teams, the work they do and the organization as a whole."

More than 8 in 10 respondents said that miscommunication at work happens very frequently, frequently or occasionally. But only half said that such miscommunication was their fault.

"People are inclined to believe 'It's not me, it's you' because of self-serving bias and defensive attribution," said Dan Harris, a Quantum Workplace insights analyst who's quoted in the report. "The self-serving bias is a tendency for people to distort their perceptions to maintain or potentially enhance their self-worth. People often want to have a favorable view of themselves, so distancing themselves from a problem—such as miscommunication at work—allows them to reason that they're not to blame; other people are."

When asked who should be responsible for reducing miscommunication at work, nearly 1 in 3 respondents said managers and supervisors were. Slightly more than half said that all employee groups were responsible.

"Company cultures are developed from the top down, in both favorable and unfavorable situations," the authors wrote. "It is critical that leaders not only hold themselves accountable to prevent and resolve miscommunications that happen within their own teams, but also those that occur companywide."

About half of employees don't regularly speak their minds at work—whether to colleagues or managers, the research found.

"If there is something that we genuinely want to say, chances are there is someone who genuinely needs to hear it," the authors wrote. "But too often we choose the path of safety and give up the possibility of addressing issues that undermine our relationships, limit our productivity, chip away at self-confidence and constrain opportunity."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

The authors offered these tips for having honest conversations:

-Recognize that your reluctance to speak openly may be because in the past, telling the truth backfired.

-Ask yourself how telling the truth might improve a situation or prevent it from worsening.

-Start the conversation with the intention of producing a positive outcome.

-Practice what you want to say and how you're going to say it.

-Ask questions so you can gather more information, eliminate assumptions and find solutions.

Employees who said they always or almost always speak their minds reported being more engaged at work than those who said they never or almost never did so.

The authors wrote that creating a "voice-empowered culture" requires that employers:

-Build a foundation of trust. This means leaders must communicate transparently and authentically, not just parrot "the company line"; stay visible, not holed up in a corner office; and be consistent and fair in their dealings with all employees.  

-Create a feeling of safety. "Foster a safe space for voices by paying attention to the way you react to feedback and ideas," the authors wrote. "If employees witness leaders shutting employees down or retaliating in some manner, don't expect them to share in the future."

-Be open to and supportive of ideas. "Create a trusting and supportive environment where incomplete ideas or thoughts can be fostered," the authors wrote. "You can do this by recognizing someone for sharing an idea in its infancy or sharing your own idea for early feedback. Be open to having others critique your ideas. Show your vulnerability by admitting when you're wrong or unsure."

-Respond. Show workers how their feedback is being used. "Employees need to see the impact their voices can make," the authors wrote. "If you don't respond with action or answers, employees will begin to realize that their voice really doesn't matter and think, 'What's the point?' "

-Provide guidance. If an employee is disrespectful or unprofessional while sharing an opinion, take the worker aside and explain that while the feedback is valuable, the employee must learn to share it in a way that doesn't make others feel uncomfortable, attacked or cut off.

Group conversations—such as during meetings—are more likely to produce miscommunication than one-on-one interactions, said nearly 56 percent of respondents. The No. 1 reason for miscommunication during team meetings, they said, was because people interpreted messages and goals differently. The No. 2 reason, they said, was because people didn't feel comfortable voicing their opinions.

"Even at the best companies, meetings are often dreaded," the authors wrote. "People are unprepared, bored or disengaged for any number of reasons. The good news is, if the right conversations are taking place, meetings can be a productive use of time."

Among the authors' suggestions for making meetings productive: Set a clear intention for the meeting and communicate it ahead of time, tell workers they'll be asked for their opinions, and discuss how ideas and opinions will be acted on. "Get specific," the authors wrote. "Assign responsibilities and schedule a time for everyone to reconnect on progress."

During conversations between a manager and a worker about the latter's performance, the No. 1 thing that causes miscommunication, respondents said, is when the worker feels that he won't be listened to. Another frequent cause of miscommunication, they said, is unclear developmental goals.

Some ways to prevent miscommunication during these conversations, the authors wrote, include: having the worker and manager create a list of topics they want to discuss and share those lists before the meeting; documenting what was discussed; writing development goals together; and summarizing at the end of the meeting what was discussed and planned, so both participants are on the same page.

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