Power Imbalance and Employee Silence

Power Imbalance and Employee Silence

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Power Imbalance and Employee Silence

Power Imbalance and Employee Silence: The Role of Abusive Leadership, Power Distance Orientation, and Perceived Organisational Politics is the title of a research article authored by Long W. Lam and Angela J. Xu in 2019 in the Applied Psychology: An International Review journal. This is a qualitative study that was motivated by the gap in knowledge and evidence about what caused employees to be silent in their organizations. By identifying the omissions in organizational silence literature, the authors, Lam and Xu, drawn from universities in China, endeavor to contribute to the existing literature by approaching organizational silence studies from an organizational context surrounding the employees rather than a personal one. Therefore, the ensuing summary attends to each of the major sections of a typical research paper, thus summarizing the introduction, literature review, theoretical background and hypothesis development, methods, results, discussion, and conclusions. Finally, a critical evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the study, alongside the lessons learned and the recommendations for improving the research, are provided.


The introduction provides a background of the study by noting that the detrimental effects of silence on organizations had caused several momentous disasters, such as the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the milk powder disaster in China, and the space shuttle Challenger’s accident in the United States. However, previous studies had dwelt more on encouraging employees to divulge information freely rather than what caused them to be unwilling to speak up in their organizations. Besides, the authors noted that the few previous studies that had addressed employee silence had ignored the contextual factors, and instead concentrated on the personal factors. Therefore, previous studies had created the need to look into contextual impacts of employee silence, such as the characteristics of the leaders and organization. For these reasons, Lam and Xu (2019) proposed to delve into defensive and acquiescent silence as the two kinds of employee silence caused by adverse work environments and injured the effectiveness of organizations. They also proposed to include power distance between employees and their leaders in the organization as a factor that contributed to the kind of silence that employees exhibited. They also proposed to study the effect of the interactions between these variables to have a better perspective of the organizational silence phenomenon. With the study variables set, the researchers opted to study the silence perceptions among the low cadre and recently employed individuals working in different firms in China. 

Literature Review

Lam and Xu review numerous peer-reviewed journal articles and books published between 1990 and 2014, although most literature is drawn from the 2000’s. First, the authors review the literature explaining voice as a different concept from silence to highlight what silence is not, and the place of bidirectional communication of fostering speaking and silence. They then reviewed the historical context of the studies in silence and noted that early studies were motivated by incidences of bullying and mobbing against employees in workplaces. They also consider the literature revealing the reasons behind withholding information by employees from managers in organizational psychology studies dating back to the year 2000. From then on, Lam and Xu (2019) note that silence research accelerated despite the small number of publications, with the focus of the studies being the reasons being opinion withholding and speaking hesitancy. These early studies revealed that the fear of repercussions was the dominant reasons why employees chose not to speak up in their organizations. Some of the later literature identified the three types of employee silence as acquiescent silence, defensive silence, and prosocial silence. However, the authors note that there was a significant lack of literature addressing employee silence empirically, especially about its precursors. Some of the literature they reviewed found that employee silence was not an indicator for team identification or professional commitment in organizations that adhered to procedural justice, that silence was self-imposed censorship, and that the cognitive and emotional states of the employees contributed to their silence at work. Other studies reviewed indicated that employees refused to contribute to resolving work issues because of their genuineness and feelings of helplessness. In the end, Lam and Xu found from their review of the literature that silence was largely driven by individual factors, and therefore, studies on the contextual and situational factors scarce, impairing the comprehensive understanding of the employees; unwillingness to share information at the workplace, which justified their study focus.

Theoretical Background and Hypothesis Development

Lam and Xu interrogated the concepts and theories related to their study and employed them to develop four hypotheses. Using previous literature, they identified and explained several concepts, including power imbalance, asymmetrical employee-employer power, abusive supervision, power distance orientation, and organizational politics, which they adopted as their study variables. They also identified the approach-inhibition theory of power as the operative theory with which to base their study in explaining how positional power caused aggression and silence among employees as the approach and inhibited behaviors, respectively. They also identified and explained defensive silence and acquiescent silence as the two types of employee silences influenced by the identified variables.

In developing the study hypotheses, Lam and Xu came up with four hypotheses relating to the types of silence and the variables derived from the concepts. The first hypothesis related self-protective silence to abusive supervision as an aggressive behavior displayed by superiors against their juniors. The second hypothesis related consenting silence to power distance positioning as an indicator of the power inequality in organizations. The third hypothesis sought to interrogate the interaction between the variables in the study and how these interactive effects influenced the two types of silences. This variable was split into two; one relating the variables to defensive silence and the other, to acquiescent silence. In this regard, Lam and Xu hypothesized that the interaction between power distance orientation and abusive supervision influenced defensive silence (2019). Similarly, they hypothesized that interaction between power distance orientation and abusive supervision influenced acquiescent silence. The fourth hypothesis, like the third one, also delved into the interactive effects of the variables and their influence on the two types of employee silences, only this time, the influence of the organizational politics perceived by the employees was considered.  


To conduct the qualitative study that sought to obtain and analyze the perceptions of employees regarding what influenced their silent behavior, Lam and Xu engaged 360 young and newly employed individuals drawn from diverse public and private organizations in different industries. The researchers utilized the snowball sampling technique, in which they identified ten individuals among the former students of a university in Southeast China. In the researchers’ wisdom, since these selected individuals would have known their university colleagues employed in diverse industries across China, they could be used to approach other willing participants from 6 associations in their alumni fraternity. In this regard, each individual selected was assigned to recruit 60 participants. The study used questionnaires as the data collection tool. Soft and hard copies of the questionnaires were distributed to the recruited participants. However, the response rate was less than perfect as some of the participants did not respond.

Lam and Xu administered two different questionnaires to the same participants after a six-week interval.  In the first survey, the perceptions about the power distance orientation and abusive supervision were collected, while the perceptions about the two types of silences were collected in the second survey. This approach was meant to resolve the challenges emanating from the variances coming from using a common methodology. In addition, although the questionnaires were formulated in English, they were translated into Chinese before administration, and retranslated back to English for analysis. Each questionnaire item was a statement against which the participant was to opine using a 6-point Likert scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree, which were assigned codes ranging from 1 to 6, respectively.  In the end, 60.56 % and 72.94% of the participants responded to the first and second set of questionnaires, respectively.


The results reflected the findings from a sample comprising 48% male. The participants were mainly recently employed and young individuals, mostly between 23 and 27 years old, and had been working for between seven months and one year. Several statistical tests were used to test the hypotheses after conducting a confirmatory factor analysis. These included descriptive statistics, like means and standard deviation, and regression analysis to test the hypotheses. Similarly, the interactive effects of the variables were assessed using 2-way and 3-way interaction tests, which statistical significance of the tests in the directional hypotheses was established using one-tailed tests. More specifically, the relationships between the variables were tested using the chi-square test, while the inconsistency between the variables in the hypotheses was tested using the Cronbach’s alpha and the comparative fit index (CFI) tests. The hypothesized models were also tested for their goodness of fit and error using the incremental fit index (IFI) and root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA) tests. All statistical tests were conducted at a confidence level of 1% and 5%. These tests revealed the relationships between the variables, specifically abusive supervision, power distance orientation, and organizational politics, and the two types of employee silence. 


Following the statistical analysis, Lam and Xu discerned that abusive supervision and defensive silence were related positively and significantly. This relationship was accentuated in employees holding much power. Similarly, the researchers discovered that power distance orientation and acquiescent silence were positively related, especially in organizational situations where supervision was abusive. Further, the analysis revealed that the effect of power distance and abusive supervision on the two types of employee silence was influenced by the politics in Chinese organizations.

Additionally, Lam and Xu discussed the theoretical and practical implications of their findings. Theoretically, they added the influence of power imbalance to the existing knowledge related to employee silence. They argued that employees resorted to less conspicuous and aggressive reactions to abusive organizational situations, which conformed to the trait activation theory because cultural and situational factors triggered silence among employees. Likewise, practically, the study revealed the importance of ethics training to bolster moral concern and courage in organizations, alongside mentorships and social support structures in highly-political workplaces. In addition, human resource managers needed to socialize the newly-employed and young employees to adopt an information-sharing culture while promoting civilized supervisory behaviors among those that held more power than their colleagues. Nonetheless, despite these implications, Lam and Xu suggested that silence further studies should gather perspectives from diverse cultures and use the experimental approach to reduce bias.


Lam and Xu concluded that organizations would prevent adverse outcomes related to employee silence by realizing that abusive superiors, large power inequalities, and highly political organizational environments promoted employee silence.

Critical Evaluation

The research paper displayed several strengths. Specifically, there was an abundance of references from previous studies. This demonstrated that the study was well situated in the silence knowledge. Besides, the sampled participants were derived from diverse industries, thus providing a general outlook of the silence-causing factors in diverse workplaces. Similarly, the paper contained robust statistical tests used to test the relationships of the variables that cause silence among employees. These tests were used to examine the hypotheses thoroughly by not only demonstrating the relationship between variables, but also their moderating and interactive effects on employee silence. However, the paper is limited by using a narrow sample drawn from only one country. In addition, the paper delivers several lessons to organizational leaders. It reminds them of their expanded mandate as ethical, servant, and collaborative leaders, which are the more progressive leadership styles in contemporary organizations. It also reminds leaders to be the architects of the organizational culture in their firms. The prevalence of abusive supervision is evidence of the lack of leadership or unethical leadership, which promotes such toxic workplace environments. Therefore, I recommend that the study methodology be improved. One way of doing so is using experimental studies which investigated the effects of an intervention as removing supervisory aggression, on employee silence. Such a study should be longitudinal to investigate the levels of employee silence before and after a leadership or managerial intervention. Besides, the research can be improved by involving employees drawn from diverse cultures, which was neglected in the present paper, as the Chinese employees had a homogenous oriental culture.


Lam, L. W., & Xu, A. J. (2019). Power imbalance and employee silence: The role of abusive leadership, power distance orientation, and perceived organisational politics. Applied Psychology68(3), 513-546.

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