Raising ideas or concerns to managers can raise your profile positively, but not if your busy manager doesn’t have the headspace for it. The authors present research suggesting that people who wait until their contribution is relevant to their unit’s agenda, fully researched, and likely to fall on receptive ears are not only more likely to get listened to, they are also more likely to get promotions and pay raises.
Decades of research have shown that when employees offer ideas or flag concerns, their voice is not always appreciated or valued by their superiors. The contribution may be seen as disruptive or a waste of time. Managers may even take it as an implicit criticism of themselves.
Speaking up with work-related issues, therefore, is very much a risk-reward game. If you raise a valuable idea or concern that your boss is receptive to, she will recognize and reward you for it. But raise something deemed distracting or disruptive, and you may be penalized.
In our latest research with Apurva Sanaria and Srinivas Ekkirala of the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore (IIMB), India, we have identified a key factor that makes some employees better than others at gaining endorsement for their ideas: they time their messages effectively, withholding their concerns or ideas until the right moment comes up to raise them. To put it another way, they practice what we call strategic silence.
Employees often underestimate the usefulness of such strategic silence. Many believe it is better to raise ideas or issues as soon as they think of them because they will come across as more authentic and will be giving managers sufficient time to address them. However, they forget how badly untimely messages may be received by managers, who are often busy dealing with dozens of issues that vie for their attention and lack the ability or patience to process ideas or concerns that feel mistimed.
Across four studies that used qualitative and survey methodologies as well as experiments involving hundreds of employees and their managers, we found that employees who withhold issues until the timing is right are seen by managers as speaking up with higher quality input and receive greater recognition and rewards as a result.
The Benefits of Good Timing
In an initial qualitative study, we drilled down on what it means to get the timing right. We asked nearly 150 employees from over 26 industries in the United States to describe an occasion when they thought of an issue or idea that they wanted to raise with their manager, but initially withheld. We asked them to explain why they did this and what happened when they did eventually present the idea or concern. In coding their responses, we discovered three essential drivers of strategic silence. We call them the Three Rs:
Employees may withhold issues if they don’t fit their unit’s current agenda. For example, a senior systems administrator in one of our studies noted how she “had an idea for database system mergers, but…held back on bringing it up until closer to the finish of another large project” because “there was no point in bringing it up” as they “wouldn’t have had the ability to tackle it for months.”
Employees can hold back when they are not ready to deliver their idea. They may need time to collect additional data on the issue, to think through a solution, or to figure out how they are going to frame their message. One retirement consultant in our sample discussed how he “had an idea of how to increase revenue by promoting a new product to customers.” He initially withheld the idea in order to research more answers to the types of questions he anticipated from his manager.
Employees can be strategically silent when they see their boss is likely to be unreceptive and will wait until their boss has the cognitive capacity to hear them. A nutrition associate in the sample delayed telling her boss that she was being expected to cover for colleagues more than was reasonable because she saw that her boss was stressed out and “had a lot on her plate.”
We also found that 88.7% of employees who reported delaying their idea for at least one of these reasons received a positive reaction from their managers when they did eventually raise their issue compared to only 61.1% of people who raised their issue to their manager but did not practice strategic silence. We further tested this finding in three follow-up studies.
In two field surveys, we had employees from a wide range of companies and industries in India report on how often they voiced ideas or concerns and how often they practiced strategic silence when doing so. Then we had their direct managers rate these employees on how valuable and useful the input was as well as provide a general assessment of employee’s performance and their likelihood of getting promotions and raises.
We found managers’ assessments of employees’ voice quality and performance ratings were significantly higher for employees who engaged in high levels of strategic silence; by contrast, when employees indicated they rarely or did not engage in strategic silence, their voice was unlikely to be rated as high quality or earn them performance rewards.
Finally, in an online experiment conducted with 742 working professionals from the U.S., we put participants in a managerial scenario where they reacted to an employee raising ideas that might be more or less relevant to a given agenda. We again found that when an employee strategically paid attention to the timing of their issues in the experiment — i.e., they held off on less relevant issues — managers rated the quality of the input and the performance of that employee more highly than for other employees who did not strategically time raising issues.
Taken together our findings consistently show that managers value and reward employees who practice strategic silence. So the next time you have an idea, check the three Rs. And unless your issue is relevant, ready, and likely to fall on receptive ears then and there, don’t rush to offer it. If the idea doesn’t tick these boxes, you’ll be less likely to get it through. If you hold off until the idea does tick the boxes, our findings suggest it will be all the better received, and your career will benefit accordingly.