The RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in 1912, yet despite more than a century of studies and analysis, few historians reference the root cause of this tragedy – a phenomenon known as "corporate silence.''
Corporate silence occurs when employees willfully withhold important work-related information. Post-sinking investigations revealed that White Star Line engineers tried to discuss the limited safety capacity with senior-level management. However, their efforts were futile and fell on deaf ears, causing them eventually to give up trying to discuss the matter. In fact, one engineer described a meeting where the first-class cabin carpet color was discussed for hours and the lifeboat capacity was given just 15 minutes.
Can history repeat itself? Fast-forward to the 21st century. Corporate silence has plagued some of the largest global organizations with devastating results. General Motors (GM), for example, had a list of “pseudonyms” that employees could use to describe manufacturing defects to water down the truth about the safety conditions of its vehicles. Instead of saying “potential danger,” employees instead were cautioned to use the more neutral language, “does not meet our standards.” The implicit message is that the truth should not be voiced.
Similarly at Home Depot, prior to the data security breach, IT employees tried to get the attention of senior-level managers because they knew of data security vulnerabilities. Instead of taking heed, leaders told employees, “we sell hammers here.” These organizations, separated from the Titanic by 100 years, share one common corporate culture characteristic: silence!
Our research shows us that two common drivers cause employees to withhold important work-related information: (1) A manager’s egregious actions (public berating, taking credit for others’ ideas, believing that only the manager knows what’s best), (2) Futility (nothing happens when we voice our concerns so, why bother?).
As noted in the examples above, the consequences of a culture of silence can be disastrous. However, when employees use silence as a defense mechanism against a perceived egregious management action, or because voicing concerns or ideas is futile, they usually give up not just their voice but also their entire psychological engagement with your company. An employee’s effort is elastic and discretionary. They know exactly how much effort to expend to maintain the status quo. But “status quo” is not a winning strategy. You need every ounce of effort from every member of your employee culture to stay ahead of your competition.
Employees will participate in idea generation and problem-solving processes with gusto when they are convinced that their voice has merit. When managers’ messages say otherwise, you can forget about getting ideas or hearing about problems from your employees.
So how do you know if you might be operating in a culture of silence? Take the Quick Silence Test by answering these four questions:
1. In the last two months, how many times at your staff meetings have you received what we call, “the bovine stare”? That’s the blank look you get from your staff when you ask for ideas or input from them.
2. How many times in the past two months has someone voiced what you considered a half-baked idea that you simply ignored or did nothing with it?
3. How many times has some openly disagreed with you in a group setting?
4. How many times has one of your employees presented an idea or solution contrary to yours and you then used it?
The answer to these questions may indicate that you are operating in a culture of silence. The antidote, a culture of voice, is attainable, but it takes discipline and perseverance. We suggest four quick guidelines to begin to eradicate a culture of silence or strengthen a culture of voice if you already have one:
Listen: Listen to every idea and proposal as if it could be the greatest thing ever invented. Suspend your preconceived notions and just listen to learn something, anything. When people know they are listened to, it is a clear indication that their voice has merit.
The 20/80 rule: To build and sustain a culture of voice, give your views 20 percent of the time and listen and draw out the views of everyone else 80 percent of time. You’ll be surprised by what you can learn and what you will hear, if you stay quiet long enough for others to express their ideas, experiences and views.
Make it easy: Be available and approachable. Mingle with employees. Ask questions, listen to responses. Be conscious of your eye contact, facial expression and tone of voice.
Encourage: Ask for opinions or updates at the end of meetings. Pause and ask again, so they know you are sincere.
Our research shows a positive relationship between cultures of voice and knowledge transfer, a proven competitive advantage. When employees believe that their voices have merit, they are inclined to share knowledge at a fast pace. In a culture of silence, employees are withholding information (knowledge) when it should be moving at lightning speed.
Follow these simple guidelines and reflect on your own practices to gage the extent to which you are encouraging voice or eliciting silence among your employees. After all, if you fail to capture lessons from the past, you are destined to repeat them.