Silence is Not Golden

How many times have you walked out of a meeting feeling like you weren’t being told the whole story?

What about those moments where your colleague nodded along to everything you said but you had a hunch that they didn’t feel the same as you?

Do your people regularly say:  

‘Didn’t you know that already?’

‘I could have told you that weeks ago!’

‘I knew that wouldn’t work…’

Silence rarely means that things are going well. It’s more likely that people are holding back, fearing that their honesty will have them on the wrong side of their boss. Some leaders even choose to play nice and stay silent to avoid difficult conversations with their people.

We’ve worked with enough businesses to know that silence is happening in every organisation, including yours. And you know what? That’s bad news because, if those who work closest to your customers and suppliers can’t speak candidly, the only time you’ll hear that something’s gone wrong is when it’s too late.

Robust conversations are at the heart of a high performing business and it’s up to leaders to create an environment which allows for open, honest dialogue.

Here’s what you can do to make it happen.

Violence of Silence

Silence isn’t just the deafening sound of no one talking. It can take many forms depending on your existing business culture. Common forms of silence that we’ve seen:

  1. Pushback
  2. Stonewalling
  3. Challenging of ideas
  4. Giving little or no feedback
  5. One person does most of the talking
  6. No one talks about the elephant in the room
  7. People continuously making the same mistakes

Let’s look closely at two of them.

Pushback is especially prevalent in workplaces that don’t allow for honest feedback. You’ll see it when there’s a new initiative being rolled out and those who disagree with the changes don’t have an outlet for their opinions. As a result, some will resist by stonewalling – saying ‘yes’ when they mean ‘no’ – or straight out refusing to communicate with you. Others will actively look for ways to undermine the changes.

Here’s some ideas to reduce pushback during a new change:

  • Keep people informed
    People pushback when changes appear to threaten their position in the company. Leaders can alleviate these anxieties by:
    • Explaining the ‘why’ behind the new initiative
    • Outlining how changes benefit people
    • Providing a roadmap and timely updates so that teams are informed and feel in control of changes
  • Acknowledge their feelings
    Some push back when they feel unheard and overlooked.
    If you hear dissatisfaction with the new changes, don’t brush them to the side! Tackle them head on by using pulse surveys to surface key concerns and find out what you can do to make your people more comfortable with the rollout

Pushback, stonewalling and other silence characteristics are symptoms of an organisation that isn’t supportive of people speaking candidly. When leaders notice silence, it’s vital that they stop to ask why it’s happening and, specifically, which of their behaviours has caused it.

ASK: What is it about the way I communicate (or don’t communicate!) that has people deciding that it’s better not to speak?

The Impact of Silence

There are serious financial consequences when leaders fail to disrupt the silence in their organisation. Thankfully, there are several things that leaders can proactively do to get their people feeling safe to speak up.

Check out these implications and some tactics that our clients have used successfully to break through the silence:

  1. Decisions made in a void
    If you don’t have all the relevant information on a particular issue, how can you possibly make the best decision?
    DO: Speak to people at various levels of the business to uncover bottlenecks. Listen with intent and act on useful feedback. When you do this, you encourage others to speak up and contribute.
  2. People become unhappy
    When people are unhappy, they lose focus and make mistakes. Some will become apathetic and do less than adequate work. Others may end up quitting and leaving or, worse, ‘quitting and staying’
    DO: Who’s ‘quit and stayed’ in your business? Speak to them and find out what’s causing their unhappiness. Ask open-ended questions about their experience and learn what you can do to re-engage them.
  3. Reworks
    Reworks are inevitable when your people don’t tell you upfront that something you’ve suggested won’t work. By the time you realise that your idea wasn’t so great, it’s already been executed and a rework is required.
    DO: Create a psychologically safe culture where being inquisitive is the name of the game and ideas can be challenged respectfully. Start by asking your people where the loopholes may be in your next big idea and tell them that their honesty could save the business time and money.
  4. Lack of Collaboration
    If people don’t feel that they can speak candidly with each other, they can’t possibly be collaborative.
    DO: Teamwork increases trust, which gives people the confidence to communicate their thoughts more freely. Proactively promote a collaborative working environment by getting multidisciplinary teams to work with each other. Let your people know that sharing information across departments is, not only welcomed, but highly encouraged.
  5. Performance suffers
    We’ve seen many leaders withhold feedback so as to appear nice but NICE just means that Nothing In Me Cares. They’ll gift wrap difficult conversations and present things in a positive light to soften the blow. The devastating impact is that people can smell deceit and they’ll resent you for not being honest.
    DO: Use our Inoculation technique when you need to give negative feedback. Start a high-stakes conversation by assuring the other person of your positive intentions and that you need to give feedback that may be difficult to hear. When others feel respected and trust your motives, they’ll find it easier to let their guard down and listen to what you have to say – even if the topic is difficult.

How Leaders Can Cut Through the Silence

Encouraging honest dialogue isn’t just about engineering opportunities for your people to speak up. Half the battle for leaders is cleaning up their own behaviours which led to a silent culture in the first place.

What does that mean?

Well, if you’re a know-it-all because saying ‘I don’t know’ is uncomfortable, you’re going to have to work on yourself first before you can support a brand new communication style in your business. Or maybe you’re someone who gets angry easily when you hear something you don’t like. These are all behavioural traits that you need to confront before your people will feel safe opening up to you.

Integrity and Values has extensive experience enabling leaders to disrupt their default mindsets. Once we break through the behaviours which create silence, we can then introduce more effective traits which produce a culture that welcomes candour and honesty.

In the thousands of hours we’ve observed leaders, there is a specific set of leadership attributes which can successfully shatter the walls of silence. Each characteristic takes time and commitment to build.

In the meantime, here are some bite-sized mindset considerations for leaders to work on:

  1. Reverse the equation
    Most people make a judgement call as to whether they’ll speak up based on the risk of doing so. The most effective leaders we know aren’t thinking about the risk of speaking up – they’re thinking about the risk of NOT speaking up!
    Whenever you find yourself biting your tongue, ask yourself what the dangers are if you don’t say what you’re thinking.
  2. Soften your emotions
    When we become angry or irritated when we hear bad feedback, some people will take your reactions personally and decide that it’s too risky to share their real thoughts with you again.  
    The next time someone is brave enough to tell you what’s on their mind, remember that they’re not doing it to rev you up. See them as being a helpful colleague who’s just eager to do the right thing by telling you what they see. Practice softening your strong emotions and ensure that you come across as a caring and empathetic leader.
  3. Create safety
    Psychological safety is something that leaders are best positioned to introduce. When someone tells you something important, show them that it won’t backfire on them by taking their thoughts into genuine consideration. Act honestly with your employees to demonstrate your respect and commitment to them.
    More importantly, don’t penalise your people’s attempts to do good for your business. Let them know that it’s okay to make mistakes or not have all the right answers immediately.
  4. Listen and learn
    When people start feeling safe to express their concerns, focus fully on them and look out for both positive and negative feedback. Listen with the intention to do something about their worries, even when you disagree, and tell them how much you value their courage to speak honestly with you.

When leaders model these behaviours, they lay the foundation for a culture of open communication where people can speak freely, advocate better solutions and achieve higher financial performance.

By engaging in open and candid conversation at the leadership level, your people will see honesty as a cultural norm and develop the muscle to speak their minds.

Curious how Integrity and Values can assist you in building a workplace where your people feel safe to speak up? Contact us today.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.