Are You Promoting a Culture of Silence?

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About once a quarter, we participate in discussion with a diverse group of colleagues who are also coaches and consultants. Each of us brings something we want to share and something we want to learn to the table. During our most recent discussion about leadership, our colleague Laura shared two statements she had recently heard that were both simple and powerful:

“I made a mistake. My boss will kill me.”

“I made a mistake. I need to call my boss.”

As leaders and managers, we will only achieve the best results if we create an environment that evokes the latter response instead of the former. The real question is, what does that environment look like, and how do we create it?

In business, there is a phenomenon called “organizational silence”.  In this type of culture, silence is the option most chosen by employees because it is perceived to be easier or involves less personal risk. The first response above often exists within a culture of silence. Too much perceived risk exists for an employee to feel like they can bring the mistake forth. However, a culture of silence won’t always be obvious to leadership, or it might take many different forms. Consider the following examples of different types of organizational silence:

  • A team member is underperforming, and the project is coming to an end. The immediate supervisor opts to delay or not give the team member specific feedback because he doesn’t want to discourage the team member.  

  • A plan is presented in a team meeting. The plan has action steps that may not work; however, the person who is presenting the plan is known to get defensive when questioned and can be hard to work with in general.  No one challenges the plan, but many of the team members commiserate after the meeting about how taxing it will be to implement.

  • The company conducts a survey requesting comments and ideas on how the department and siloed teams can work together better. Many employees reach out to HR to ask if the survey is “truly anonymous” and “confidential”.  Feedback is shared with leadership, the survey accuracy for both ratings and comments is questioned, resulting in no significant changes.

  • Company leaders have said they want employees to bring forth ideas on how to do things differently – challenge a process, suggest a new way, introduce something the leaders don’t know. However, when ideas are raised the employees are told, “That’s not how we do things around here”, “I’m not sure you really understand how that works”, or “That doesn’t seem consistent with ‘our process’”.

To companies, silence is damaging and costly. It often results in a lack of development, growth, learning, innovation, needed change, and can increase financial drag, re-work, and disengagement.

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In the first two examples above, think about the risk of team members not speaking up. The underperformer is not given the benefit of information that will help them improve and develop. As a result, they could lose confidence, repeat the poor performance, and negatively impact the next project team. In the team meeting, the lack of critical feedback will likely result in inefficiency, wasted time, and unnecessary stress for the team, but will also limit the learning and growth for the person who presented the plan.

In the last two examples, leaders are positively reinforcing the personal risk of team members speaking up. Through their actions—and many times their words— they demonstrate that those who speak up are bound to be challenged or uncomfortable. In other words, these leaders are promoting a culture of silence.

The best leaders and managers promote a culture of openness, transparency, and sharing. They do not fear input or feedback, they welcome it. They do not create fear or retribution, they stamp it out. They not only tolerate mistakes, they encourage taking risks and failing as a means of learning. They reinforce that team members should share ideas and emphasize the risk to the company and the team if the team members DO NOT share their ideas.

In short, the best leaders create an environment where team members feel safe, seen, heard, respected, and confident they could call the leader to say, “I made a mistake”. As leaders, we each create a culture that is within our span of control – whether it is our office, our department, our partnerships, or our project team.

Within that environment, leaders must role model the desired type of company culture. Leaders who don’t want a culture of silence must embody openness and transparency. Effective leaders must have difficult conversations and put the company/team needs and interests above their own. Demonstrations of vulnerability and acceptance of failure will reduce fear of retribution from team members. Leaders who listen without judging might hear things they don’t like, but an opportunity will also arise to act on these uncomfortable things alongside loyal and confident team members.

Laura heard two simple, yet powerful statements:

“I made a mistake. My boss will kill me.”

“I made a mistake. I need to call my boss.”

Which one of these would your team members say if they made a mistake?