What Can You Do About Organizational Silence?

You’re not quite sure how to put it into words, but the decision leadership has just announced doesn’t feel quite right. Maybe you have uncovered an alternative solution in your research. Maybe it’s a gut feeling. A teammate could have mentioned something better over coffee the other day. As you sit there in the staff meeting, with the most senior person in the room announcing his latest idea, you know it’s not the right move.

We would like to tell ourselves that we would speak up in that instance. As a person of principles, you believe you can speak up when it’s for the greater good. Research says we usually don’t, though.

Silence is tacit agreement. If you don’t believe me, just search on Twitter for that phrase and you will see it strewn across many of our feeds. It’s something we can imperatively get behind because it makes sense. We see something, but don’t say something.

Mind you, I’m not discounting the ability of individuals to speak up when the moment requires it. Much of the history of social change in the US comes from the brave few with the courage to say, “No more.” I’m referring to the collective level dynamics that plague office culture.

New York University researchers Elizabeth Morrison and Frances Milliken refer to this phenomenon as a culture of “organizational silence.”

What is Organizational Silence?

In their paper Organizational Silence: A Barrier to Change and Development in a Pluralistic World, Morrison and Milliken show that although organizations may verbalize openness, most cultures send implicit and sometimes very explicit signals to employees that they should remain silent.

As with most organizational issues, it starts at the top. The writers state that a leadership group that positions itself apart from the workforce can create a barrier or air of superiority. Any cultural differences are magnified even more when this siloing of leadership occurs. It’s not just about leadership, though. Environmental barriers, such as a contingent workforce, external hiring of senior managers, and low-cost strategies, can also contribute to organizational silence.

The result will be poor implicit and explicit managerial practices as well as company policies that encourage silence. Managers end up hiring people just like them. The workforce focuses on things like interdependence and job stability over innovation and welcoming change. When your top priority is to prove that you’re all necessary and should stay exactly where you are, silence is the result. The paper further illustrates that thoughts and ideas only travel down, as opposed to both directions:

“It has been shown that when negative feedback comes from below rather than from above — from subordinates rather than bosses — it is seen as less accurate and legitimate, and as more threatening to one’s power and credibility.”

This unilateral perspective is founded on the notion that a higher position equals higher respect. Better ideas must come from more elevated positions, so why would we challenge them? All it takes is one sly comment from a superior to make you think twice about speaking up the next time.

Organizational culture is a huge component of success in the market place as well as long-term employee well-being and happiness. If organizational silence is negatively affecting your business, watch our webinar “The Path to Business Agility” to learn more about the cultural aspects of business agility and how to start your own journey.

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What are the Effects of Organizational Silence?

“After my suggestions were ignored, the quality of my work was still there,” an interviewee stated in the paper. “But I wasn’t.”

Thanks to the research proving the validity of emotional intelligence in modern offices, we know feelings matter in the workplace. It would be irresponsible for a superior to ignore the feelings of the members of his or her team. And yet when organizations create a culture of silence, it disregards the feelings of employees.

Feeling disregarded leads to you offering fewer ideas.

If an individual manager doesn’t value your ideas, and that person represents the company at large, then how do you trust the organization? You become an order taker for your boss and automate as much of your day as possible. Five o’clock on Friday becomes your ultimate goal.

Creating safe spaces for venting can have a short-term impact, according to the paper. It would only be short-lived, though. A harmful cognitive dissonance emerges when there is a stark difference between what employees can say in private as opposed to publicly. In a sense, organizational silence leads to a culture of harmful passivity. Passivity leads to inaction in moments where it’s most needed, and companies crumble underneath the pressure that is never released.

So What Can We Do About It?

Morrison and Milliken summarize that on the surface organizational silence can be a difficult to correct. The destructive cycles that are outlined in the paper aren’t easily observable, which make them difficult to prove to senior leadership. This means a change at the top is most likely necessary, and those types of sweeping changes are rare.

Even if it does come, the writers argue, it won’t solely stop the culture of silence. New systems would need to be put in place to not only allow people to speak up but encourage it. This is why so many startups disrupt industries across the board globally: new companies don’t have the excess baggage of existing structures that encourage silence.

Most of us don’t have that luxury: we work for big corporations with long-lasting cultures, full of positive experiences and negative baggage. While the paper has a somber tone to it, I would prefer to think positively. Surely there’s something we can do starting today, right?

I can’t speak for the authors of the paper but I can say for myself that something we can do from today on is look inward to our own teams or programs and try to start change there. We take an active stance against the stigmatization of negative feedback, which I believe is a root cause of organizational silence. We may not be able to change the overall structure of the entire organization at the team level, but we are able to look at the few around us and decide to speak up to each other. Agile teams valuing transparency state that the only way we will improve our products and work lives is to say something.

By making our work visible, including our problems, we give voice to them. We prove they are a real thing and can rally around a possible solution. You can inspect and adapt your way out of organizational silence.

Will it change the organization overnight, or even over a long period of time? Who can say? When others in the organization see what you and your teammates can accomplish, though, they will ask themselves what you are doing that they aren’t.

And that is how the seeds of true change are truly sown.

Photo by Billy Lam on Unsplash