The novel coronavirus has undoubtedly wreaked havoc on our lives. But since its discovery, a disturbing dynamic has surfaced that has repeated itself around the globe. When those closest to the virus speak out to issue warnings, request resources or call for help, they are shot down and silenced.
By not attending to those who attempt to speak the truth to power, we delay our ability to resolve problems associated with treating and containing the virus. And this will cost lives.
In December in Wuhan, China, Dr. Li Wenliang was treating patients with what ultimately became known as COVID-19. He was among the first to warn about the outbreak of the virus. In the middle of the night, government officials demanded to know why he had shared the information. Three days later, the police compelled him to sign a statement that his warning constituted “illegal behavior.”
To avoid public alarm and embarrassment, officials further chose to put secrecy and order ahead of openly confronting the growing crisis. After Li died in early February, the Chinese government clamped down on the news media and internet chatter in order to control the narrative around the crisis.
Here in the United States, we see a similar dynamic. A Navy official fired Capt. Brett Crozier for sending a four-page letter warning of deteriorating COVID-19 conditions aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Employees at prisons are relieved of their jobs for speaking out about conditions. Workers at Amazon claim they are being silenced for speaking out about the virus. And many experts in their fields are being chased out of their positions for any hint of disloyalty. Hospitals are threatening — and in some cases, following through on threats — to fire health care workers who publicize their working conditions.
These efforts to silence employees prevent us from learning about the severity of problems, assessing the need for resources, and gaining the additional support from leaders with the power and authority to take action. Those problems will prolong this epidemic. Organizational researchers like myself have shown several reasons why.
It takes leaders’ involvement to make changes. When employees speak up, they are implicitly asking for help on issues they don’t have the power to address on their own. In a study of 11 financial institutions, my colleagues and I found that when employees spoke up, it led to operational improvements and financial success only when those ideas reached business unit leaders who could take action.
Further, in a study of 136 restaurants in a national chain, we showed that employees could identify problems, but the challenges were solved only when leaders with power and authority were willing to devote resources and efforts to the issues.
The most knowledgeable employees need to feel comfortable voicing their problems. Employees often read the political winds to determine whether it is safe to speak up. Yet, it is the best performing employees — those who are the most competent and credible — who are most attuned to whether their boss is open. If it’s not safe, the best employees will remain silent.
Our research has also shown that, ironically, the leaders who need the most help are the ones who are least likely to seek it. Not wanting to look bad can undermine leaders’ willingness to learn about the true extent of the problems. Thus, in organizations rife with problems, we are likely to find leaders who are the most resistant to hearing about those very problems. That means the least competent leaders create a vicious cycle for themselves — they are most averse to seeking input from experts.
The epidemic of silencing front-line workers who are dealing with this once-in-a-generation pandemic only serves to extend its horrific impact. Instead, we must embrace the difficult message that these individuals are relaying and devote more resources and attention to addressing the underlying concerns. Only then can we help limit the damage and provide a speedier path to physical, financial and social recovery.
Ethan Burris is a professor of management and the Chevron Centennial Fellow at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also director of the Center for Leadership and Ethics.