Want to stand out at work? Study suggests using a ‘supportive voice’

AMES, Iowa — It happens at virtually every company meeting or informal brain-storming session. A manager asks all employees for their opinion on a particular subject, using phrases like, “Don’t be shy, we’re looking for feedback!” Such corporate situations can be tricky, as workers don’t want to say the wrong thing, but sometimes saying nothing at all is a worse option. So, what should you do the next time you find yourself in a similar scenario? New research suggests using your “supportive voice” instead of a “challenging voice.”

The study, conducted by researchers at Iowa State University, analyzed two distinct communication strategies for discussing work-related issues. How do the way we phrase such gripes or suggestions influence and determine how our co-workers and supervisors perceive us? In short, the research suggests that while there’s nothing wrong with constructive criticism, it’s important to make sure to support fellow employees as well.

“What we say within a group, the ideas we suggest and the way we support others, signals something about who we are to our coworkers. It can attract people to us or repel them,” says study co-author Melissa Chamberlin, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at Iowa State, in a media release.

Why choose supportive over challenging?

Study authors conclude employees who use a “supportive voice” are more likely than others who use a “challenging voice” to be chosen for a team project. With that in mind, what exactly do those phrases mean?

A challenging voice questions the status quo and offers up potential ideas for improvement. Taking this type of tone can be risky, the study explains, as some managers and co-workers may interpret it as negativity and criticism. Still, in many cases challenging the status quo also displays competence or expertise.

Supportive voice, on the other hand, emphasizes approachability and trustworthiness, promoting strong interpersonal relationships and improving employee communication, coordination.

“Supportive voice is still about speaking up in the workplace, but it’s looking at what’s going well in the group or team. It might defend the status quo by saying there’s value in what the team is already doing,” Prof. Chamberlin explains.

People choose good teammates over great workers

The team analyzed data collected from a collection of full-time Master of Business Administration students over a four-month time period. They routinely separated students into groups to complete various short-term projects and then asked them to rate their teammates’ use of challenging and supportive voice, the quality of their work, their reputation, and their trust in them. At the end of the experimental period, participants could determine their teammates for a new project.

To study authors’ surprise, although participants viewed students with high marks for challenging voice as highly competent and capable of producing high-quality work, their peers actually preferred working in groups with those who usually use supportive voice more often.

“Because challenging voice is the predominant form of speaking up we encourage in classrooms and as managers, we thought it was going to be strong driver of people selecting team members later. But as it turns out, this more supportive voice that helps establish relationships and a sense of trust amongst individuals in the group was more important,” Prof. Chamberlin comments.

Ideally, researchers say having the perfect mix of both would work wonders. However, supportive voice ranked as the stronger driver of team formation.

On an actionable level, the research team say employees can use these findings to better understand how their public statements partially dictate future outcomes like teammate choices and even leadership decisions. Managers, meanwhile, should encourage the use of supportive voice among workers.

“There might be times that challenging voice reigns supreme but other situations where supportive voice becomes more critical for a team,” Prof. Chamberlin concludes. “Supportive voicers can keep teams together to make sure the work gets done.”

The study is published in the Journal of Management.

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