Break the Silence: Could silence be threatening even our strongest organizations

This is a repost, for posterity, so I don’t lose it.

Break The Silence, August 2003

The fact is that silence is strangling many organizations today. Employees and management are encouraged to speak out at only the most opportune time, after the appropriate lobbying has been done and they have their ducks in a row. This cultural quirk is often good for everyone as the person bringing the idea forward can avoid the embarrassment of having an idea “shot down” in a meeting or formal setting, and anyone above them on the hierarchy can feel as though they have already contributed to the idea, even if only by having known of it before it was presented.

“Consider what happened to one off-site meeting of top management at a web-based education company. Concerned about the company’s vision, the managers met to share and discuss different perspectives. But one speaker after another just echoed what the previous speaker had said. When any manager did dare to dissent, a colleague would quickly dismiss his idea. Having effectively tabled every discussion in which disagreement surfaced, the management team crowed about the level of “consensus” they had achieved. One by one they celebrated their achievements.” – HBR/May 2003

What is wrong with this picture? Even at an even peer level, members of an organization will keep remarkably silent in order to avoid confrontation. Often we will find one or two dissenters in a meeting, but a large proportion of attendees will keep silent.

Not only do we feel uncomfortable with communication on a peer level, but these problems are even more powerful between two levels of an organizational hierarchy. Consider how easy it is for a boss to send a “be quiet” signal to a subordinate. With minimal body language, a manager may not even realize what he/she is doing – but the signal is quite clear to the receiver, and the reverse is true as well. A boss will often be uncomfortable expressing new, but untested, ideas to a subordinate.

Where does this disconnect come from?
The exchange of ideas in many present day organizations is quite dysfunctional. The mere act of sharing an idea between levels on the hierarchy is akin to a direct command, and sharing ideas on the peer level will often result in complete silence around the table. We develop “spirals of silence” in which we create norms, procedures and ideologies all centered around having a gentlemanly silence.

The disconnect between members of an organization comes from the desire to avoid conflict and to accept, not affect, change only when needed.

What are the costs of organizational silence and disconnect?
The costs are very real. Resentment can grow and false social economies will foster a low status quo. When an organization needs to grow, or shift itself in some direction, it becomes unable to do so in any real way and change comes in very superficial manifestations. We begin to try to solve problems by altering rather than creating, and by keeping some old idea rather than tossing it. We are still able to accomplish things for ourselves as we can thrive on being agreeable within our hierarchies, but organizationally we are stalled and unable to affect change. Is there a solution?

How can we foster cultural change and open new lines of discourse?
An example from a Harvard Business Review article “Is silence killing your company?”

“Harry was a battalion commander, whose unit of more than 500 soldiers had just been miserably defeated in a mock battle . . . At first no one said a word. Then Nick, a very junior scout who was responsible for detecting and alerting the battalion to the enemy’s movements said “No, Sir, it wasn’t your fault. I fell asleep on duty.” Harry was shocked. But rather than focus on Nick’s failure, great as it was, Harry immediately redirected the unit’s attention to uncovering the underlying problem – the exhaustion the men were suffering.”

By avoiding putting the focus of the discussion on the person who spoke up, and concentrating on solving the problem at hand, Harry has rejected the norms of a military (organizational) model of communication. Not only has a meaningful discourse taken place, but the process was open and without that openness, Harry would never have known the true problems behind the failure. Had Nick not spoken up, Harry would have been forced to find the problems in other places and no useful change would take place.

A change in the prevailing culture of an established organization cannot come from the very top-down approach that is being reevaluated. It must come from people, like Harry in our previous story, who will lead by example. Facilitators and early adopters are key to the success of personal publishing in your organization. By bringing key figures into the picture, such as Presidents, Vice Presidents, and prominent people within departments, on board early on, the real need for openness and communication will be understood by the rest of the involved community.

Our new focus must move from the problem to the person. Much like Harry, we must empower people (or allow them to empower themselves) at all levels of our organization. By recognizing the power of discourse, we can encourage all levels within the hierarchy to speak freely. When “Breaking the ice” becomes a cultural norm, a powerful new way of working emerges. No longer are we stuck in a world where we can’t act creatively.

Creating a space where this kind of interaction can take place becomes a high priority. The problem with this type of change is that a Memorandum regarding a corporate cultural change would be the antithesis of itself. We must foster this change carefully, in a safe and comfortable space for everyone.

Why implement and invest in these new ideas?
Organizational communications are at the mercy of corporate culture. The more top-down our methods (newsletters, presidents reports, corporate newspapers) of communicating and directing, the more we formalize (by implication) our less structured interpersonal communications. Even the validity of our consensus building exercises comes in to question when we realize that our corporate culture may be fostering silence within the hierarchy.

2 thoughts on “Break the Silence: Could silence be threatening even our strongest organizations

  1. I don’t think this silence exists just in organizations. In my opinion political correctness has created an environment where it is so easy to dismiss an apposing opinion as racist, sexiest etc.

    Sadly what has developed to improve one groups position in society has been at the expense of openness, trust and transparency.

    I left Xerox for the reason mentioned in your article. Xerox was otherwise a great organization to work for but often discussion came down to … if you do good, you were well managed … and if you didn’t it was your fault. That combined managers coming around to “listen to the troops” but with an agenda that didn’t require apposing … just became demoralizing

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