Don’t Complain to These Co-Workers

Before speaking up at work, employees should consider whether they’re talking to the right person.

Texas McCombs
Big Ideas
Published in
2 min readJan 25


Based on the research of Ethan Burris

Conventional wisdom says it pays to speak up at work: When an employee offers a novel idea for workplace improvements, and managers listen and act, both the organization and employee win.

But new research from Texas McCombs finds much depends on whom those employees speak to.

In a recent paper, Ethan Burris, professor of management, examined what factors make speaking up productive, by increasing the likelihood that a suggested change will get implemented. He found two characteristics of the listener that enhanced sales for both an employee and a business:

● Hierarchy: Having the authority and resources to make the change happen.

● Competence: Having the know-how to make the change happen.

Some employees make the mistake of speaking up to someone who is no higher in the hierarchy, Burris says. “They target people who simply do not have the power or social standing to initiate effective change.”

Instead, he suggests, employees should first consider whether they’re speaking to someone who can take the requested action:

● Employees should speak upward, to managers who have the authority and resources to address an issue. Speaking more frequently to bosses led to a 12%-15% increase in sales performance.

● Employees should avoid speaking sideways, to peers who have no more power than they have to fix underlying challenges. Speaking sideways was associated with a 10% decrease in sales performance.

● If employees must speak sideways, they should target their most competent peers — those with the most knowledge and influence to help get ideas carried out.

“Employees should think critically about who they direct their voice to, when they have an idea for change,” says Burris. “Both the amount of authority a person has to drive change and their competence give a greater likelihood of implementing the ideas employees raise.”

The Agency to Implement Voice: How Target Hierarchical Position and Competence Changes the Relationship Between Voice and Individual Performance is forthcoming, online in advance in Organization Science.

Story by Alexandra Biesada



Texas McCombs
Big Ideas

News, business research, and ideas from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. Learn more at