Breaking the silence using conversational practice

By Elmira Bakhshalian, Research and Development Manager (Assoc CIPD) at Martin Reddington Associates. 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

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.

  • The fear of losing face/lack of confidence/losing their job/being berated are all factors that can be obstacles to good conversational practice

    One thing that has to pervade open dialogue is an employer/manager/director that is willing to accept constructive criticism or even just listen to another’s point of view and the way they see things

    It is to the detriment of a business that does not encourage open dialogue. Employees have great potential to be frustrated if they aren’t being listened to, they don’t matter or they feel the company don’t care. Ultimately ‘suffering in silence’ can lead to disillusionment, stress and depression which then affects performance

    In my experience there are, unfortunately, still archaic despotic cultures within companies that rule by fear. Subsequently, the workforce becomes  very ineffective, disillusioned and unproductive. Many employees either leaving for another job or at the very least not giving their full effort and performance

    My personal approach allows open dialogue but in an entirely confidential way so the employee can be open with myself and does not feel threatened. I do not reveal to the employer the employee I have spoken with, that way the employee is allowed to be open. I simply become the conduit/messenger for the initial conversational practice to take place. That way at least positive headway can begin to happen

    Fortunately there is a move and understanding with forward businesses that recognise that their employees are their asset value and should be treated as such. ‘Bad things happen when good people stay silent’. Psychological well being of employees should be a requisite as good practice as per the recent NICE guidelines

    Kevin Garrington