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We all know people at work who express themselves frequently, quickly and fluently as well as people who express themselves less often. But which of them come up with the best ideas and how do they arrive at those ideas? A team of psychologists and economists from UvA investigated how much cognition (working memory capacity) employees need to communicate innovative ideas within their organisations. Amongst other things, the research indicates that especially people who express their ideas infrequently think carefully about the content of what they say. This does not mean, however, that their ideas are by definition better than those of people who express their ideas often. The findings of the research were published in the academic journal PlosOne on Wednesday 27 February.

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Voice behaviour –which is referred to by the researchers as ‘voice’ – is defined as speaking up through the constructive communication of problems, challenging opinions, and suggestions for improvement. ‘Voice is important for organisations’, says lead author Inge Wolsink. ‘Often, management is too far removed from the workplace to see what’s going wrong or what could be improved. To be able to solve problems and innovate, managers thus need their employees to voice. Most research so far has focused on the frequency of voice, which is often related to positive organisational outcomes. We know much less however, about how employees express high quality voice. A better understanding of how employees come to formulate high-quality messages can help make employees' voices more effective and valuable for organisations.’

With this in mind, the research team investigated the cognitive processes that underlie the communication of a high-quality message. Specifically, they investigated whether ‘frequent ‘voicers’ arrive at the communication of a good idea via a different cognitive process than infrequent ‘voicers’?’ The researchers conducted three studies, which measured the correlation between deep thinking (cognitive capacity) and the quality of ‘voice’ in various ways, and were able to make a distinction between frequent and infrequent ‘voicers’. In the first study, test subjects came to the lab, where they undertook a working memory task to test their cognitive capacity. They then tested whether they would ‘voice’ in a team task, and also rated the quality of their voice. In the second study, the researchers actively manipulated participants’ possibility to engage in deep thinking. Test subjects were distracted (versus not distracted) while they performed a task in which they could voice ideas, opinions and problems. The quality of their voice was subsequently evaluated by an independent panel. In the third study, the results of the first two studies were replicated in real organisations. In total, 152 employees completed a working memory task to measure their cognitive capacity, and their colleagues and managers then assessed how often they ‘voiced’ and the quality of their message. 

Focus or improvisation

Wolsink: ‘We found that voice quantity is not related to cognitive capacity. This indicates that people don’t deliberately consider if they are going to say something. It seems that the decision to ‘voice’ or ‘not to voice’ may be fairly automatic. The quality of the message, however – the extent to which it is a good idea – does appear to be related to cognitive capacity, but interestingly, only for infrequent ‘voicers’. It seems that only those who express their ideas infrequently, carefully consider the content of what they say. As a result, they produce a high-quality message. So, if you distract these people with other things, you may miss out on potentially important information. People who come out with lots of ideas on a regular basis seem to be able to achieve a high level of quality through a kind of improvisation, without having to think too hard.’

Give quiet employees time

According to Wolsink, the main conclusion for professional practice is that there are major differences in peoples’ cognitive processes. ‘Our study shows that infrequent ‘voicers’ can achieve the same quality as frequent ‘voicers’, but the conditions must be conducive to this. This is relevant for organisations, because we can all think of meetings where the same people, the frequent voicers,  dominate the conversation. Realising that people who don’t always appear to have something to say can provide highly relevant insights – provided that they are given the chance to think things through – is a key step in facilitating innovation in groups.’ 

Publication details

Inge Wolsink, Deanne N. den Hartog, Frank D. Belschak & Ilja G. Sligte: ‘Dual cognitive pathways to voice quality: Frequent voicers improvise, infrequent voicers elaborate’ in PlosOne (27 February 2019). Doi: