Is Your Tone of Voice Making Your
Employees Feel Unsafe?
Employees feel safe when they feel like their mistakes aren’t held against them, when they can talk about tough issues, take risks, and ask for help without being rejected or undermined. Employees feel safe when their unique skills and talents are valued. According to research by Edmundson (1999) at Harvard Business School, when employees feel safe they perform better than when they feel unsafe, in part because they learn better. Such psychological safety is associated with more collaboration, higher creativity, and greater trust.
Given your appreciation for how your employees’ feel, you choose your words cautiously and you are careful not to put anyone down. But you may be unwittingly undermining your employees’ sense of safety by the tone of voice you use when you speak to them.
We are incredible tone detectors
Human beings are remarkably sensitive to detecting how people feel based on their tone of voice. Recent research has demonstrated that people can detect a smile or a frown when listening to others speak even with no visual cues whatsoever (Quene, Semin, & Foroni, 2012). In fact, detecting emotions from the voice happens whether or not people are intending to do so. In a recent study researchers had people listen to other people’s voices while recording their brain activity using fMRI. Different vocal stimuli were provided to each ear, and participants were asked to pay attention to what was being said on just one side in order to complete a task. The results of the study indicate that when people hear angry voices in the background, even when they are asked to attend to a neutral voice in order to complete a task, their amygdala becomes activated (Sander et al., 2005). In other words, the emotional sound of an angry voice is being registered by the brain’s fear processing region, even when a person’s conscious attention is directed somewhere else (Scott et al., 1997).
Unforeseen consequences of harsh tone
We may be good at detecting emotions in the tone of someone’s voice, but we might not be so good at managing the tone of voice we are using when we speak to our employees, and we don’t always consider the consequence of using a harsh tone. As a case in point, doctors are highly motivated to avoid malpractice suits and can reasonably be expected to comport themselves in ways that build rapport and avoid animosity with their patients. But even with this important motivation, some doctors speak to their patients with tones that express dominance while failing to express concern. When they do so, researchers found, they are more likely to have been sued for malpractice than doctors who use more respectful and caring tones (Ambady et al., 2002). This study suggests that speaking with a dominating or uncaring tone may have far-reaching, unforeseen consequences.
What you can do about it
If you speak with undertones of anger, disapproval, or rejection, your employees may feel afraid and put down regardless of the words you say. While there is no empirically supported approach to re-calibrating your tone of voice, we offer some common sense suggestions.
- The first step is to become aware of when your voice might be harsh and damaging. Enlist the help of a trusted person on your team and simply ask them to point out to you times when your tone might have been harsh.
- Next, when you are told or when you catch yourself speaking in an overly angry or disapproving tone of voice, try to repair the damage immediately. You can acknowledge that you may have sounded overly critical, apologize for speaking so clumsily, and recommit to maintaining a supportive tone.
- Finally, if this is a recurring problem, you might want to dig deeper into your own beliefs and feelings to understand what might be causing you to appraise people and situations harshly. The most effective way to root out a harsh tone of voice is to chip away at the overly judgmental worldview that begets it.
Ambady, N., LaPlante, D., Nguyen, T., Rosenthal, R., Chaumeton, N., & Levinson, W. (2002). Surgeons’ tone of voice: A clue to malpractice history. Surgery, 132(1), 5-9.
Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.
Sander, D., Grandjean, D., Pourtois, G., Schwartz, S., Seghier, M. L., Scherer, K. R., & Vuilleumier, P. (2005). Emotion and attention interactions in social cognition: Brain regions involved in processing anger prosody. Neuroimage, 28(4), 848-858.
Scott, S. K., Young, A. W., Calder, A. J., Hellawell, D. J., Aggleton, J. P., & Johnsons, M. (1997). Impaired auditory recognition of fear and anger following bilateral amygdala lesions. Nature, 385(6613), 254-257.
Quené, H., Semin, G. R., & Foroni, F. (2012). Audible smiles and frowns affect speech comprehension. Speech Communication, 54(7), 917-922.