Silence is Killing our Organisation
In organisations, speaking out is not always encouraged or appreciated. Individuals who disagree with their company and publicly express their concerns are running the risk of being punished by a heavy hand. So silence is everywhere and expected. But research shows this is costly to both the individual and the organisation. Silence can create feelings of humiliation, pernicious anger, and resentment on individuals. And existing ideas, if unexpressed, can contaminate every interaction, shut down creativity, and undermine productivity across the organisation.
REASONS TO BE SILENT
When people choose not to confront a difference and keep a relationship, silence starts. Although dissimilarities and diversities are inevitable and should be valued in organisations, most people find it is easier to dissimulate differences than to discuss them. We stay silent when we fear a loss of status or even expulsion among peers if we differ from the rest. We obey when our manager sends a powerful signal for us to keep quiet. We cover up the differences when there is a pressure of getting jobs done quick.
THE COSTS OF KEEPING SILENCE
Silencing does not resolve any problem, and that is the main issue. "Pushing some difference beneath the surface" only generates negative emotions on us. And as long as the problem exists, our repressed feelings remain and impact the way we connect with others. A sense of disconnection in our relationships can make us defensive. We become more fearful that if we speak out, we will get into trouble. We drag ourselves into a destructive "spiral of silence
", which is set in motion.
On other occasions, we silence ourselves in the short-sighted belief that we can park the differences and get our jobs done quicker. But doing this only impacts our creativity, learning, and decision-making, which creates additional problems for us to solve in the timeline. So we need to be careful about silencing our differences in response, or we may end up in such a self-made "speed trap".
HOW TO BREAK THE SILENCE?
Qe should replace the spirals of silence with spirals of communication. This is possible, but doing so requires us to act differently and create the context in which people will value the expression of such difference. The following practices can be helpful for that:
- RECOGNISE YOUR POWER. No matter what rank we belong to in an organisation, we have the power to express ourselves and to empower others to speak out. Be the first to bring differences out into the open so they can be discussed. Just be careful to present our information in a way that the others can absorb. The approach can ensure the discussion to be a mutual exploration of the issues.
- ACT DEVIANTLY. To break silence, sometime we need to act deviantly. Deviance is a creative act, search out and invent new approaches to do things. By challenging a norm, we play an active role in changing it.
- BUILD A COALITION. Reaching out to others gives us the strength to break silence. We know we are not alone and have more legitimacy and resources. We may feel embarrassed to approach people to join us, but often we may find that many people feel the same as us.
⇨ How do you perceive silence at the workplace? And how do you break it?
Source: Perlow, L. and Williams, S. (2003), "Is Silence Killing Your Company?", Harvard Business Review, May 2003.