What a culture of silence is costing your organization

If asked, most people say that they will speak up when something negative happens. When the rubber hits the road, however, few actually do.  


A recent Harvard University study demonstrated people’s propensity for silence by asking participants what they would do if someone cut in front of them in line. Most said they’d quickly and politely tell the person to step aside. But when researchers tested that prediction by actually cutting in front of people in line at the mall, they found the line-cutting victims most frequently expressed their discontent by giving dirty looks to the line cutter or complaining to their neighbour behind. Only one in 25 actually said something to the line-cutting offender.


Similar studies have been conducted in the workplace, with similar results. Another study by Harvard revealed that 90% of nurses don’t speak up to a physician even when they know a patient’s safety is at risk. The research found that 93% of people say their organization is at risk of an accident waiting to happen because people are either unwilling or unable to speak up.

From its study, Harvard found there are five themes of counterproductive silence in the workplace, among them:

•Difficult colleagues – failure to confront rude, abrasive, defensive and disrespectful colleagues.

•Strategic errors – failure to speak up when policies and procedures are fraught with inaccuracies or bad logic. 

•Unmotivated team members – failure to talk to peers and direct reports about poor work habits and lack of engagement.

•Abusive bosses – failure to openly discuss the physiological safety concerns created by people in power.

•Management chaos – failure to get clarification when people feel uncertain around roles, responsibilities, and timelines.

Harvard found that instead of speaking up in these situations, team members are more likely to complain to others (78%), do unnecessary work (66%), ruminate about the problem (53%) or get angry (50%).These behaviours aren’t just unhelpful; they’re costly. The average employee wastes seven days a year complaining, doing unnecessary work, ruminating or getting angry, instead of speaking up. The hit to the bottom line is even more remarkable – upwards of $7,500 per employee per year. Luckily, cultures of silence can be changed – but it has to start at the top. Team members won’t be inclined to speak up unless they feel safe and empowered to do so. They must feel that their thoughts, opinions and views are not just encouraged by senior leaders, but valued.

Here are four recommendations to senior leaders to transform a culture of silence into a culture of dialogue.

•Reframe your position. Most people avoid difficult conversations because of the perceived risk of doing so. Those who are skilled at crucial conversations don’t think first about the risks of speaking up, however. They think first about the risks of not speaking up. What is sacrificed at your organization by denying truth free reign?

•Respond, don’t react. The reason difficult conversations often go poorly is because our emotions get the best of us. And those in conflict with us react to these emotions, far more than the words we speak. This, in turn, creates a reaction in us. Rather than reacting, take the time to turn towards the other with empathy, seeking out your shared values, beliefs, hopes, dreams and fears. We share these in common far more than we do our disagreements. 

•Make others feel safe. People become defensive – or avoid conflict entirely – when they feel psychologically unsafe. To ensure this safety, acknowledge the other person frequently, assuring them of your positive intentions and respect for them. When others trust your motives, they are far more likely to withstand the temporary discomfort of a difficult conversation.

•Encourage disagreement. A culture of dialogue can only emerge if senior leadership invites the dialogue. Encourage your team members to disagree with you. Those who are best at crucial conversations don’t just come to make their point; they come to learn.

When leaders model these behaviours, they lay the foundation for cultures of dialogue, full of happier, more engaged employees. They also reap the kind of bottom-line results that can mean the difference between success and failure. •

Casey Miller (casey@sixandahalfconsulting.com), president of Six and a Half Consulting, is a leadership and team development specialist. His consultancy teaches organizations the skills needed to create motivated and inspired workplaces.