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Spirals of Silence: The Dynamic Effects of Diversity on Organizational Voice


Address for reprints: Frances Bowen, Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, 2500 University Drive NW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2N 1N4 (


ABSTRACT When will individuals speak up about organizational issues, and when will they remain silent? We suggest that organizational voice will be significantly influenced by individuals’ perceptions of the attitudes towards an issue within their workgroup. In particular, individuals will be more likely to speak up when they believe that their position is supported by others, and remain silent when they believe that it is not. We explain this using the ‘spiral of silence’ proposed by Noelle-Neumann (1974, 1985, 1991) and widely used in public opinion research, which explains how majority opinions become dominant over time and minority opinions weakened.

Spirals of silence within groups can restrict the open and honest discussion that is essential to organizational improvement. Noelle-Neumann's spiral of silence emphasizes the horizontal pressures that the threat of isolation and corresponding fear of isolation exert to keep people from being open and honest about their opinions. We argue in this paper that the fear and threat of isolation are particularly powerful for members of invisible minorities such as gay and lesbian employees. We propose a second, vertical ‘spiral of silence’ may develop through processes at a more micro level within the workgroup and organization. This second spiral begins with the inability to fully express one's personal identity within the workgroup because of a negative climate of opinion towards a particular aspect of one's identity. This may be especially true for ‘invisible’ sources of diversity such as sexual orientation. Revealing a potentially disruptive identity might impair social cohesion: concealing it, however, can inhibit social exchange and task exchange and reduce self-efficacy, leading to organizational silence. However, an alternate virtuous spiral can result in which individuals will feel empowered to express organizational voice.

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