Silence of the rebels

This week I had an experience that surprised me and reminded me of just how difficult it is for corporate rebels to speak up. "Lois, I need to tell you something," she whispered nervously as I walked into the ladies room. Then she quickly searched the stalls to make no one from her management team was there.

"I know why the workshop isn't working," she said with conviction.

Now I was on high alert, having walked into the bathroom frustrated and discouraged about the leadership workshop I was leading. The topic was on how to lead meetings so  that healthy conversations and differing points of views could be aired to arrive at better decisions. But the energy in the workshop was low and the engagement almost non-existent. Was it the material? Was I having an off day? Do these people not have meetings? Could I turn this around after the break or should I just end it and put all of us out of our misery?

"It's trust," she whispered. "I'm fairly new here and can see the problem. But no one sees it because they confuse friendliness with trust. I have to go. Please, never, ever tell anyone I told you this."

Yowza. Having worked with this client before I never would have thought that trust was an issue.

Organizational silence = shutting down ideas

After the break I started the session with "organizational silence" research from NYU Professor Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison. (Here's an article by Professor Morrison.)

"Perhaps what's really at play here is nothing about how to lead meetings. It's about your organization. Meetings simply mirror the culture. In most organizations silence is pervasive because leaders are afraid of negative feedback and harbor beliefs that they know more than the rank and file, and that employees can't be totally trusted.

"Moreover," I continued, "We leaders are often trying to protect our status and sense of certainty. People speaking up shake up our status and we often inadvertently shut them down. If not in words, then in our body language. We never hear what we need to hear. What does that do to a business?"

Radio silence.

Then one brave young man raised his hand. "Yes, it feels kind of unsafe to say anything at our  meetings. I don't get the sense that people really want to hear my point of view."

Then people started talking.  After two and a half hours we were having the real conversation.

"A troubling aspect of the dynamics that create and maintain silence is that they are hidden from view and often unrecognized" says Professor Morrison.  "Management may see that employees are not engaged, but may assume that it is because they are self-interested or not motivated."

How to break the silence? Professor Morrison offers these suggestions:

  • Don't shoot the messenger: In terms of prevention, managers must work hard to counteract the natural human tendency to avoid negative feedback. They must not only seek out honest feedback, on a regular basis, they must also be careful to not “shoot the messenger” when they receive bad news.
  • Create a safe climate: Managers must also work hard to build an open and trusting climate within their organizations, one in which employees know that their input is valued and that it is safe to speak up.
  • Really want to hear it: If employees sense that those above them do not want to hear about potential problems and issues of concern, they will not talk about them. Managers must recognize this dynamic and convince employees that they do want input.
  • Replace top managers: One way to create such a change (of open communication) is to bring in new top managers. This will not only enable the organization to break from its past, but will signal to employees that there is a commitment to changing the status quo.

There are no solutions, only practice

There is no easy way for leaders to create safe corporate cultures. There are no simple solutions for being the corporate rebel who raises issues no one really wants to hear, despite their value.

Learning to create safe corporate cultures and raising difficult issues are  life-long practices. Like practicing your golf swing, tennis serve, meditation, drawing, and developing patience.

We're never done. We can only be aware that we need to be aware.