Dr. S. K. Mishra
Organizational Behavior and HRM Area, IIM Indore
Email: email@example.com; Phone: 0731-2439520
Communication between a subordinate and her/his superior is argued to have tremendous implications for the survival and growth of the organization. Studies have highlighted the importance of subordinate-superior communication for effective decision making, organizational learning, and enhanced productivity. Subordinates having open lines of communication with their superiors are more likely to identify strongly with the organization, deal effectively with job stressors and contribute to organizational productivity. Immediate superiors are important for subordinates as, subordinate-superior relationship is believed to be the most central dyadic unit in the organization (subordinates differentiate between the support received from their immediate superiors and support from the top management). In addition, prior research has indicated that immediate superiors are better suited to perform mentoring roles and several possibilities open up for subordinates who speak up to their most proximate leaders. While immediate superiors are important both for structural and systemic reasons, it is often the case that employees prefer not to speak up. The reasons behind the silence may lie with individuals’ personality (may be shy, reticent in nature) or situational (contextual) concerns.
For a job requiring frequent informal communication with superiors, the following question becomes important.
Should an organization focus more on selecting employees with higher willingness to communicate (personality) or on providing an environment where the flow of communication is easy and aided?
To answer the above question, we conducted the study in four phases. In the first phase, the Willingness to Communicate scale was validated among 453 respondents. In the second phase, the questionnaire was translated to the Hindi language by following the TRAPD method that involves five stages: Translation, Review, Adjudication, Pretesting, and Documentation. In the third phase, data were collected from 781 respondents. In the fourth phase, after analyzing the data, 28 individuals (managers and heads of HR departments) were interviewed.
We found that willingness to communicate (personality-like factor) accounts for much less variance in likelihood to voice as compared to the variance accounted for by organization specific situational variables (i.e., organizational politics). Thus, it can be argued that organizations that wish to increase subordinates’ upward communication behavior may be better guided if they direct a larger part of their resources to manage organization-specific situational factors than to focus exclusively on subordinates’ personality-like communication behavior. On the flip side, the results suggest that adverse organizational environment can force a communicative subordinate into silence.
Politics is generally viewed as a potentially negative activity, and our results reconfirm this view. The results suggest that vocal subordinates (high willingness to communicate) are least likely to voice in an environment where perceived politics is high. If organizations put a lid on negative politicking, they can claim to have a communicative workforce which is more likely to communicate their ideas to their immediate superiors.
Some individuals have the ability (called as political skill) to effectively understand others at work, and to use such knowledge to influence others to act in ways that enhance their personal and/or organizational objectives. Individuals high in political skill possess an understanding of people along with a basic belief that they can control the processes and outcomes of interactions with others. Due to their high level of social astuteness and networking ability, politically skilled individuals have a keen understanding of the workplace. Furthermore, they have the ability to read people and situations well and act on that knowledge in ways that lead to interpersonal effectiveness. Scholars pointed out that politically-skilled individual are able to use their social understanding, influence, and networking abilities to garner important resources that may assist in coping with negative situations such as organizational politics. We found that when subordinates’ political skill is low, they are likely to voice to their superiors when they perceived politics is low, compared to the situation when perceived politics is high.
Going back to the question that we raised in the beginning—for a job requiring frequent informal communication with superiors, should an organization focus more on selecting employees with higher personality-like willingness to communicate or on providing an environment where the flow of communication is easy and aided?—the results of our study suggest the latter.
ORIGINAL ARTICLE: Kumar, K.K. & Mishra, S.K. (2017). Subordinate-superior upward communication: Power, politics, and political skill. Human Resource Management, 56(6), 1015-1037.