What Can You Do About Organizational Silence?

Regardless of your opinion of the president, I think many would agree that he speaks his mind on all topics. His tweets in the middle of the night set policy. The rally comments set off protests. Trump speaks up.

Only sometimes he speaks with silence.

When Puerto Rico was flooding, he spoke of NFL players. When white supremacists were demonstrating in Virginia, it took him several days to respond only to take it back. There are circumstances that even the most bombastic president ever speaks with silence.

Just like we do every day in our organizations.

Silence is tacit agreement. If you don’t believe me, just search on Twitter for that phrase and you will see it strewn across many of our feeds. It’s something we can imperatively get behind because it makes sense. We see something, but don’t say something.

Mind you, I’m not discounting the ability of individuals to speak up with the moment requires it. Much of the history of social change in the US comes from the brave few with the courage to say “no more.” I’m more referring to the collective level dynamics that plague office culture.

New York University researchers Elizabeth Morrison and Frances Milliken refer to this phenomenon as a culture of “organizational silence.”

What are its origins?

In their paper Organizational Silence: A Barrier to Change and Development in a Pluralistic World, Morrison and Milliken show that although organizations may verbalize openness, most cultures send implicit and sometimes very explicit signals to employees that they should remain silent.

As with most organizational issues, it starts at the top. The writers state that a leadership group that positions itself apart from the workforce can create a barrier or air of superiority. Any cultural differences are magnified even more when this siloing of leadership occurs. It’s not just about leadership, though. Environmental barriers such as a contingent workforce, external hiring of senior managers, and low-cost strategies can contribute to organizational silence.

The result will be poor implicit and explicit managerial practices as well as company policies that encourage silence.

Managers end up hiring people just like them. The workforce focuses on things like interdependence and job stability over innovation and welcoming change. When your top priority is to prove that you’re all necessary and should stay exactly where you are, silence is the result. Thoughts and ideas only travel down, as opposed to both directions.

“It has been shown that when negative feedback comes from below rather than from above — from subordinates rather than bosses — it is seen as less accurate and legitimate, and as more threatening to one’s power and credibility.”

This comes from the notion that a higher position equals higher respect. Better ideas must come from more elevated positions, so why would we challenge them? All it takes is one sly comment from a superior to make you think twice about speaking up the next time.

What are its effects?

“After my suggestions were ignored, the quality of my work was still there,” an interviewee stated in the paper. “But I wasn’t.”

Thanks to the research proving the validity of emotional intelligence in modern offices, we know feelings matter in the workplace. It would be irresponsible for a superior to ignore the feelings of the members of his or her team. And yet, when organizations create a culture of silence it disregards the feelings of employees.

Feeling disregarded leads to you offering fewer ideas.

If an individual manager doesn’t value your ideas, and that person represents the company at large, then how trust the organization? You become an order taker from your boss and automate as much of your day as possible. Five o’clock on Friday becomes your ultimate goal.

Creating safe spaces for venting can have a short-term impact, according to the paper. It would only be short-lived, though. A harmful cognitive dissonance emerges when there is a stark difference between what employees can say in private as opposed to publicly. In a sense, organizational silence leads to a culture of harmful passivity.

Passivity leads to inaction in moments where it’s most needed, and companies crumble underneath the pressure that is never released.

So what can we do?

Morrison and Milliken summarize that on the surface organizational silence can be a difficult culture to break. The destructive cycles that are outlined in the paper aren’t easily observable, which make them difficult to prove to senior leadership. This means a change at the top is most likely necessary, and those types of sweeping changes are rare.

Even if it does come, the writers argue, it won’t solely stop the culture of silence. New systems would need to be put in place to not only allow people to speak up but encourage it. This is why so many startups disrupt industries across the board globally. New companies don’t have the excess baggage of existing structures that encourage silence.

Most of us don’t have that luxury, though. While the paper has a somber tone to it, I wondered if it’s possible to think positively. Surely there’s something we can do starting today, right?

In the end, all we can do is look inward to our own teams or programs and try to start change there. We may not be able to change the overall structure of the entire organization, but we might be able to look at the few around us and decide to speak up to each other. Agile teams valuing transparency state that the only way we will improve our products and work lives is to say something.

By making our work visible, including our problems, we give voice to them. We prove they are a real thing and can rally around a possible solution. You can inspect and adapt your way out of organizational silence.

Will it change the organization overnight, or even over a long period of time? It might prove difficult. When others in the organization see what you and your teammates can accomplish, though, they will ask themselves what you are doing that they aren’t.

Those are the seeds of true change.

7 thoughts on “What Can You Do About Organizational Silence?

  1. Hi Chris,

    This post has caused me to think — and I agree with the assertion that “Silence is tacit agreement”. Someday I may write a blog post of my own on the topic based on a recent experience. Thanks for sharing!


  2. This was extremely interesting and eye-opening. There were several parts that almost hit too close to home. Great article! I’ll be keeping an eye out for more posts!


  3. Having said that, don’t you think in this period of organization transformation, we (coach) can elicit the voice of people, liberating structures, unleash them for the sake of modern business pace?


    1. At face value, I sure hope we can. The trick is understanding the context in which we are empowered to elicit those voices. True org silence, from the study, comes from a level so high that most coaches don’t get visibility or a seat at the table.

      I think we can empower the people and opportunities for change at the level we are allowed to. Heard once that without proper empowerment, change will always hit a glass ceiling. This article hopes to point out that to change an environment of org silience we must aim higher.

      Make sense?


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