Fragale, Sumanth, Tiedens & Northcraft (2012). Appeasing Equals: Lateral Deference in Organizational Communication

Alison R. Fragale -University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
John J. Sumanth – Wake Forest University
Larissa Z. Tiedens – Stanford University
Gregory B. Northcraft – University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign

Danielle Tussing – University of Pennsylvania Wharton
Jeffrey Thomas – New York University Stern

Article link:

Question 1. Finding Great Data. You noted that the e-mails from Study 1 were made publically available due to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) investigation of Enron. How did you get the idea to use these emails, and what advice do you have for scholars in terms of finding unique, publically-available data sources?

We credit co-author Lara Tiedens with the idea to use the Enron emails. We had originally intended to use posts and responses from an academic listserv when Lara heard about the Enron data on NPR. The hardest part about using those data was finding an organizational chart; there were plenty of emails, but without an understanding of the hierarchical relationships between the parties, we couldn’t use them. Finding an organizational chart in the Enron haystack took months.

In our experience, the popular press is a great source of information about datasets (such as magazines, newspapers, and blogs). Any time a statistic is quoted, investigate the source. Often these statistics come from public or semi-public sources. In some cases the data aren’t fully public, but you can network your way to access. One of the authors is currently doing just that to get ahold of some ethics data from an industry group – it often takes a few phone calls to find the person with the right connection.

Question 2. Contrasting Deference and Assertiveness. There are interesting contrasts between this paper and voice literature, which suggests that lateral voice is more common (and easier) than upward voice. How would you characterize the relationship between deference and assertive behaviors? To what extent does additional deference serve to offset additional challenges or voice behaviors that occur in lateral interactions? Under what circumstances should deferential behaviors and more assertive behaviors covary?

While it’s generally true that “speaking up” (i.e, to leaders) is seen as more challenging for individuals than “speaking out” (i.e., to peers), there’s actually been relatively little published research that considers how the target of voice impacts both the content and manner in which voice is communicated. One of the papers that does a nice job of highlighting this distinction, Liu, Zhu, and Yang (2010), suggests that the extent to which individuals identify – either on a personal or collective level – may drive their decision to voice upward or laterally. Specifically, in cases where individuals identify strongly with their leader and seek to emulate them, upward voice may be more likely to occur, while in situations where individuals feel a much stronger affinity towards the collective (e.g., group or organization), speaking out to peers may be more common.

What this potentially means for lateral deference behavior is that individuals may consider how strongly they identify with their group or unit before taking the risk of speaking out. It could be the case that sometimes, speaking out to peers can actually be more risky than speaking up to one’s leader. For example, in highly competitive cultures where individuals have a strong performance orientation (as opposed to learning), sharing a good idea with a peer may actually hurt one’s ability to gain status or recognition. At worst, peers may end up stealing the good idea as their own, thereby making it even more imperative that the voicer signal through lateral deference that he/she is not trying to compete, or “one-up” his/her colleagues. In this way, lateral deference may serve a critical self-preservation function.

It is also important to note that voice could take multiple forms. One could voice using a deferential style (e.g., “What do you think about doing it this way?”) rather than an assertive style (e.g., “Let’s do it differently”). Our research speaks more to the potential style of voice, rather than the amount of voice or the direction of voice.

As for when assertiveness and deferential behaviors might covary, it’s quite possible that the context plays a large role in allowing these seemingly divergent actions to coexist. For instance, having a climate of innovation (Anderson & West, 1998) or psychological safety (Edmondson, 2003) within a unit or team may allow individuals to feel both comfortable challenging one another’s ideas and opinions, while still fostering an environment of mutual respect, liking and trust. In many ways, this speaks to a team environment that fosters healthy task conflict, while minimizing affective conflict (Simons & Peterson, 2000).

Question 3. Conscious versus Unconscious Behavior. One of the most interesting arguments in your theorizing is that “deference can be conceptualized as a specific form of influence, whether intentional or not,” rather than an obligatory behavior for those in lower-ranking positions. Do you think the use of deferential communication is more of an intentional/conscious or unintentional/subconscious behavior? Are there any underlying motives beyond influence and status that you think might be at play?

The overall goal – to be highly regarded by one’s audience – may be intentional and conscious, but the specific behaviors displayed to achieve this goal – a hedge, a constricted body posture, etc. – may be nonconscious. This belief is based, in part, on some of our other work looking at nonverbal deference. We found that individuals often respond to nonverbal displays of dominance with displays of submissiveness and deference, but have no ability to accurately report what was happening with their bodies and why (Tiedens & Fragale, 2003).

Regarding other motives for lateral deference, we originally thought that deference could be driven by a desire to avoid conflict, and/or a desire to create strong social bonds with others. For this reason we attempted to measure both of these concerns in Study 2 of our paper and didn’t find any empirical support for them. Of course, this doesn’t mean that concern for status is always the only motive, but we didn’t find as many other paths to deference as we expected.

Question 4. Fear of coworkers. Your paper focuses on verbal deference, with underlying assumptions regarding the dangers of overstepping one’s place. To what extent has this research inspired insights into lay theories about dangers of lateral interactions with peers? What types of punishments or negative consequences do employees seem to fear most while interacting with peers, as opposed to superiors?

The whistleblowing literature has provided a great deal of insight into the many negative repercussions individuals may experience when they choose to speak up at work. Although we tend to immediately think of supervisors as the primary ones doling out formal punishments for whistleblowing, in many cases the social ostracism, rejection, and “traitor” labeling (cf. Williams, 1997) often comes at the hands of peers (McDonald & Ahern, 2000). We see these social sanctions as the greatest threat in peer interactions, and past research supports these peer punishments for peers who overstep their place (Anderson, Srivastava, Beer, Spataro, & Chatman, 2006).

Question 5. Post-Publication Insights. Were there any insights, analyses, or thoughts you would like to share that didn’t end up in the final paper? Were there any surprising reactions or common questions relating to this research that you would like to address?

The biggest lingering question from this paper is whether lateral deference is actually functional, as we claim. We demonstrate that lateral deference is more frequent than upward deference, and argue that this frequency suggests it is a functional behavior, but we have no direct evidence for that. We are currently collecting data to investigate whether lateral deference to peers is particularly useful for avoiding status loss, in comparison to deference to superiors.


Anderson, C., S. Srivastava, J. S. Beer, S. E. Spataro, and J. A. Chatman (2006). Knowing your place: Self-perceptions of status in face-to-face groups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 1094-1110.

Anderson, N. R., & West, M. A. (1998). Measuring climate for work group innovation: development and validation of the team climate inventory. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 19(3), 235-258.

Liu, W., Zhu, R., & Yang, Y. (2010). I warn you because I like you: Voice behavior, employee identifications, and transformational leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 21(1), 189-202.

McDonald, S., & Ahern, K. (2000). The professional consequences of whistleblowing by nurses. Journal of Professional Nursing, 16(6), 313-321.
Simons, T. L., & Peterson, R. S. (2000). Task conflict and relationship conflict in top management teams: the pivotal role of intragroup trust. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85(1), 102.

Tiedens, L. Z., & Fragale, A. R. (2003). Power moves: Complementarity in dominant and submissive nonverbal behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 558-568.

Williams, K. D. (1997). Social ostracism. In Aversive interpersonal behaviors (pp. 133-170). Springer US.

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