How many warnings about data security risks went unheard–or unspoken–from Home Depot employees? Could it be only two people were aware of bogus classes for star athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill? Ignition-switch defects, subprime mortgage bubble issues–sometimes it seems as if we’re seeing communications issues escalate to crisis levels on a daily basis. The costs? Loss of productivity, competitive advantage, trust, and even human lives.
Yet so many people–maybe even you–claim: “Not in my organization. Knowledge flows openly because my people know they will be heard. We have a culture of voice!”
Is that so?
Unbeknown to you, your employees may be willfully withholding timely and critical information. Many employees equate silence with their own survival. Silence–in their eyes–lets them do their work, get paid, and get along. Silence, to them, means they won’t ever get shot for being the messenger. But silence also means critical information won’t make its way to the people who really need to know about it.
What can you do to become aware of and overcome this phenomenon of silence? Shut up and listen to create a culture of voice. Here’s how:
- When was the last time someone contradicted you in a meeting?
- When was the last time someone said they thought there was a problem in the organization you might not be aware of?
- Have you always received timely and unvarnished information from your employees necessary to make wise decisions based on accurate assumptions?
If you have to take a moment to think of an answer to any of the above questions, it may be signaling that you are encouraging a culture of silence. Everything you do or say promotes or discourages upward communication. Your employees pick up on your behaviors and internalize cues and signals you send to determine if it is safe to speak out.
You have a choice: be a curious listener who inquires to learn or be a judge who discounts and tells. You should aim to be approachable and available.
Your mind can speed along up to three times faster than anyone’s ability to speak. You may be mentally solving a problem before you really understand what it is. You may be judging the speaker before you understand the message. You may be judging the content before it’s all there. You may even be looking for points of disagreement.
Avoid these distractions by listening without speaking. Seek to understand others by focusing on their content, verbal intonations, and facial expressions. If you’re purposeful about hearing the words that are coming your way as they’re spoken, then you will learn.
Give yourself credit for hiring smart people. It’s possible you haven’t been encouraging your employees to speak because you have a strong sense of responsibility. You’re the boss–maybe you think that means you have to have the answers, or it is your job to know better. In fact, this may be causing your employees to hold back when they should be speaking up. Ask yourself this question: “Did I hire stupid people?”
Hopefully, your answer is an immediate, indignant “no.” If it is, then make a point to turn to your employees for input on your next decision. After you ask for that input, pause. Do not interrupt; do not speak. Pause up to 45 seconds. You might find this incredibly uncomfortable; it’s amazing how silence can be so hard to tolerate. But if you wait long enough, they will talk and, again, you will learn.
Without realizing how they come across, many senior managers respond to others in a way that sounds as if they are judging. Maybe they want to affirm they know what’s going on. Maybe they want to reassure others they’re in control. But in doing so, they may seem condescending, or even arrogant.
Try setting aside your opinions and thoughts for a few moments. Instead, repeat what you hear, such as: “I think I’m hearing this. Is that right?” Don’t add new information, opinions, or solutions right away. Ask others for their responses to what’s been said. Ask if there are any other views to be stated or perspectives to be shared. Do not assume unanimity.
It may seem as if you’re wasting valuable time, especially if you do have an immediate and well-founded objection to what you’re hearing. But by guiding others through a thought process, rather than insisting they jump with you to your conclusion and accept your view unilaterally and unconditionally, you will be creating a culture of voice.
Cultures of silence are created. They are the cause of devastating consequences for relationships, careers, corporations, and even countries. At the same time, cultures of voice are created when each employee has the confidence and trust to contribute to their fullest abilities, resulting in an environment of open communication, innovative solutions, accurate, and timely knowledge transfer and competitive advantage. Create safe opportunities for others to have voice, and you’ll be one step closer to crushing the silence within your organizations today.
Christine Mockler Casper, co-author of Breaking Corporate Silence with Dr. Rob Bogosian, is the president of Communication, Motivation & Management, Inc.