Power Dynamics in The Workplace and The Hidden Costs of Fearful Communication

In her book “Controlling Other People: The impact of power in stereotyping”, researcher Susan Fiske claimed that “Secretaries know more about their bosses than vice-versa; graduate students know more about their advisors than vice-versa” [1]: what happens when communication in the workplace is ruled by power dynamics and the voice of one of the parties involved remains unheard?

The combination of workers whose opinions and knowledge may not be valued with unaware leaders who may not have a realistic insight into workplace situations contributes to creating a toxic environment, bound to damage beyond repair any organization characterized by a highly hierarchical structure.

Have you ever heard of a phenomenon known as “Mum effect” (or “code of silence”)? It indicates a situation in which at least one of the main stakeholders either withholds or purposely distorts critical information in order to avoid facing negative repercussions [2]:

Me as a little staff auditor? … I sure wouldn’t want to march into this guy’s office and tell him the project that he had been championing for all these years should be put to death” (Keil and Robey, 2001) [3].

According to some studies, such phenomenon seems to be a common occurrence in IT Project Reporting [4], especially when external vendors are involved [5].

Some of the main factors that are highly likely to negatively impact the outcome of a project are: urgency (at what stage of a flawed project is the need for remedial action required?) [6]; personal accountability (to what extent is one of the parties involved in a troubled project willing to take responsibility for its failure?) [7]; these are potentially coupled with cultural factors such as PDI (Power Distance — the strength of hierarchy within a societal group and the extent to which individuals perceived as wealthier, wiser, and better educated than others are granted more power in comparison with others), and IDV (Individualism — the extent to which people are more inclined to pursue personal over collective goals and achievements) [8].

A notable and tragic example of the Mum effect in action is the explosion of the Shuttle Challenger occurred in 1986, that disintegrated 73 seconds after take-off, killing the seven members of the staff who had joined the mission:

The Rogers Commission [9] — whose members included former astronauts Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride and Nobel prize winner, physicist Richard Feynman — was appointed by former President Ronald Reagan to investigate the disaster. The Commission discovered that NASA had no prior experience launching the shuttle in temperatures as cold as those on the morning of Jan. 28 (31°F / -0.5°Cat launch time) [10], and that the O-ring seals in the solid-rocket boosters that were meant to prevent the leakage of hot gases had not been previously tested in extreme cold. Before the launch, the rubber became stiff and failed to properly seal the joint. Feynman reported that the odds of this occurring ranged from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000: the higher figures came from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management [11].

The Commission concluded that the main reasons behind the tragedy were, “failures in communication … [which] resulted in a decision to launch 51-L based on incomplete and sometimes misleading information, a conflict between engineering data and management judgments, and a NASA management structure that permitted internal flight safety problems to bypass key shuttle managers”  [12].

While the Challenger shuttle disaster occurred as a result of flawed communication and imbalanced power dynamics between American stakeholders who shared similar cultural traits, cultural clashes have often been identified as the root cause behind a number of tragic accidents in aviation history: among these, the crash of Korean Air Flight 801 in Guam in 1997 that was attributed to the pilot’s decision to land despite the junior officer’s disagreement [13]. Similarly, the crash of Avianca Flight 52 (a scheduled flight from Bogotá to New York) in 1990 was seemingly caused by the failure to share low-fuel data between the pilots and the controllers and by misunderstandings about the emergency procedure to follow [14], paired with unspoken social norms like avoiding the direct questioning of authority (high PDI cultural dimension, typical of Latin-American cultures).

Interestingly, those societies that — to varying extents — rank high on the PDI and IDV indexes are usually located in Asia (both Confucian- and Southern Asia clusters) and in Latin America: it’s worth noting that the AT Kearney Global Services Location Index 2017 indicated India, China, and Malaysia as the top locations for outsourcing in terms of financial attractiveness, people skills and availability, and business environment, while other Asian and Latin American countries followed closely [15].

Can any organization in today’s global environment afford to be oblivious to those societal dynamics that influence communication in different cultural environments?

The cost of fearful communication can be high. After all, as Sir Alec Guinness once claimed, “I’ve never known bad news to improve with keeping”.



[1] Fiske, Susan (1993) “Controlling other people: The impact of power in stereotyping”, American Psychologist 48 , pp 621-628

[2] O’Neal, E. C., D. W. Levine, and J. F. Frank (1979) “Reluctance to transmit bad news when the recipient is unknown: Experiments in five nations,” Social Behavior and Personality (7) 1, pp. 39-47

[3] Keil, M. and D. Robey (2001) “Blowing the whistle on troubled software projects,” Communications of the ACM (44) 4, pp. 87-93

[4] Tan, B. C. Y., H. J. Smith, M. Keil, and R. Montealegre (2003) “Reporting bad news about software projects: Impact of organizational climate and information asymmetry in an individualistic and a collectivistic culture,” IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management (50) 1, pp. 64-77

[5] Zwieg, P., K. M. Kaiser, C. M. Beath, C. Bullen et al. (2006) “The information technology workforce: Trends and implications 2005-2006,” MIS Quarterly Executive (5) 2

[6] Mitchell, R. K., B. R. Agle, and D. J. Wood (1997) “Toward a theory of stakeholder identification and salience: Defining the principle of who and what really counts,” The Academy of Management Review (22) 4, pp. 853-886

[7] Robbennolt, J. K. (2000) “Outcome severity and judgments of “responsibility”: A meta-analytic review,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology (30) 12, pp. 2575-2609

[8] Hofstede, G., 1997, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, 2nd edition, McGraw-Hill, New York

[9] https://science.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/missions/51-l/docs/rogers-commission/table-of-contents.html 

[10] https://priceonomics.com/the-space-shuttle-challenger-explosion-and-the-o/ 

[11] https://science.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/missions/51-l/docs/rogers-commission/Appendix-F.txt 

[12] https://history.nasa.gov/rogersrep/v1ch5.htm 

[13] Ladkin, Peter B. “The Crash of Flight KE801, a Boeing 747-300, Guam, Wednesday 6 August, 1997: What We Know So Far.” Article RVS-J-97-09. 11 September 1997

[14] Aircraft Accident Report, Avianca, The Airline of Columbia, Boeing 707-321B, HK 2016, Fuel Exhaustion, Cove Neck, New York, January 25, 1990 (PDF). National Transportation Safety Board. April 30, 1991 (https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Reports/AAR9104.pdf)



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