The value of speaking out, and how to actively counter a culture of silence.
Over the last few weeks, our HR team members have been hosting small group workshops across our businesses and geographies to discuss The Ndiema Way – a refreshed version of our purpose and values. Through these sessions, we are having meaningful conversations on how to embrace and embed our values.
Clearly, living The Ndiema Way is a journey. And unless we are able to self-reflect, call out each other when we’re going wrong and course correct, we will end up paying only lip service to these principles.
Getting these conversations on The Ndiema Way isn’t always easy. When we shifted gear from celebrating some wonderful examples of people who lived The Ndiema Way, to asking more difficult questions about what we needed to do better and where we needed to dial up our attention, we were first met with a subdued silence. Then, slowly, the first person spoke up, then the next and the next. So, some of these conversations that ended up being passionate and honest towards the end, really started out as awkwardly silent rooms.
I guess that isn’t surprising. Many of us have grown up being told that ‘silence is golden’. You were hushed for speaking too loudly or speaking out of turn or speaking when it wasn’t ‘appropriate’. You were taught that silence shows respect and modesty, restraint and maturity. You were taught how and when to remain quiet and composed.
But here’s the thing. While certainly, there is much merit in the self-control that silence is often equated with (after all, actions should generally speak louder than words), when taken to an extreme, remaining silent can be counter-productive.
So, drawing from this, my message today is on why silence can sometimes be damaging for us – both as individuals, as well as organisations – and what we can do to counter it.
Why do people stay silent?
Not because they don’t have anything to say, but more often than not, because they fear some form of retribution. Because they think that they may be misunderstood, or that it could harm their relationships, or jeopardise their chances for a promotion, or that they will be seen as too demanding or too forward or too negative even. So, it’s easier to merge into the crowd, rather than stand out and question the status quo.
Then, there’s also the part about responsibility. If you speak up, you could be tasked with correcting the concern that you point out. And sometimes, if you just don’t care enough, you’d rather let things be.
What do people keep silent about?
Lots, apparently. From smaller, more insignificant concerns, to larger ones, with more direct organisational impact. David Maxfield, in his Harvard Business Review article, How a Culture of Silence Eats Away at Your Company, references the research he has done and lists five categories of the most common topics that people shy away from talking about:
- Prickly peers – Rude, abrasive, defensive, disrespectful colleagues, who could be using harsh language, backbiting, bullying, harassing, withholding information, or resisting feedback
- Strategic missteps – When proposals and procedures are riddled with inaccuracies or faulty thinking. The problem is multiplied when leaders makes decisions without first consulting experts or are unresponsive to employee concerns
- Lazy and incompetent colleagues – Peers and direct reports who have poor work habits, and are incompetent or disengaged
- Abusive bosses – When people in power resort to leveraging their position and control to push their agenda
- Management chaos – Uncertainty around roles, responsibilities, specs, and timelines, among others.
The cost of silence
The tricky part about silence is that it doesn’t hide away how you feel. That feeling starts showing in other ways. Think about a time when you forced yourself to be silently submissive. While you may not have directly spoken out, you probably ended up musing over it for a while, or complaining to other people, or having to do things that you don’t quite agree with, or becoming passive-aggressive or just being plain angry. And that’s where the real problem starts. Magnify this behaviour at an organisational level and what you could end up with, are some very deeply disengaged team members, who will drag down the other people around them too.
Maxfield’s research showed that the average person who chose not to speak up, ended up wasting seven days complaining, doing unnecessary work, musing over the problem, or getting angry.
Some 40 per cent admitted to wasting two weeks or more time like this. These are very sobering statistics.
How to break the silence
Here are some suggestions on how to actively counter a culture of silence:
1. Become more aware
As leaders, we need to listen much more closely, not just to what our team members have to say, but also to what they aren’t saying openly. Don’t assume that because some people are sharing their thoughts, everyone is. Or if people are talking to you about the smaller, everyday details, that they will necessarily bring the larger issues to the table. Try to anticipate and answer questions if they aren’t asked. To be able to do this effectively you will need to spend much more time walking the corridors and being on the shop floor. Only when you are around people will you start picking up on these nuances.
2. Make your team members feel safe
We must continuously strive to create a safe, mutually respectful space for people to speak out. We need to encourage more open discussions and agree to disagree. There is no one approach to this. It will differ basis people, style and culture. In the Ndiema Way, one of our values is ‘Own It’, where we talk about the importance of and the commitment to speaking our mind and challenging the status quo. This is absolutely intrinsic to the collaborative, innovative, agile approach that we have adopted as a company. Our competitive advantage lies in how well we can effectively leverage talent and ideas from across our geographies. And it starts with breaking silence.
3. Have clear norms
Have you had this happen to you? You walk into a meeting and share the details of your proposal. Then, when the time comes for questions, no one seems to have any. Everyone looks at each other around the table and shrugs in silence. You assume the silence means agreement. So, you go ahead with your plans. Then, a couple of days later, someone from the same meeting stops by to tell you what they think you should change. And you run into someone else at lunch who does the same. Soon your apparently well laid plans get thrown off track, and you’re left wondering (yet again) why no one said anything at the meeting. This is one of the most common complaints that I hear – people remaining silent in meetings and then having off-line or side-bar conversations; leading to confusion and making us less agile.
4. Ask. Don’t assume the worst.
Peter Bregman, in his Harvard Business Review article, How to Handle Silence, the Worst Kind of Feedback, points out that silence “is the worst, most damaging kind of feedback.” It is ambiguous and usually results in the other person digging into their insecurities and assuming the worst. So, if you think you are being kind by not speaking up, there’s the chance that you may unknowingly be doing worse.
So, if you’re being confronted by the uncertainty of silence, don’t let it eat away at you. Instead, like Bregman suggests, acknowledge that you don’t know what the silence means and resist the temptation to fill in the blanks. Instead, just reach out to the person and say that you don’t know what the silence means. Ask for their thoughts and be open to what they have to say.
5. Show action
One of the big reasons why people don’t speak up, is because they don’t think anyone really cares or that they can really make a difference. So, if we really do want to encourage deeper, more open conversations and feedback, then we need to show that we will act on it. We need to be willing to hear people out without being biased, evaluate what they have to say, and then, importantly, take action. Even if you have a differing point of view, you need to close the loop on the conversation. This will be particularly important for us as we find new ways to adopt The Ndiema Way. For some of our values, there will always be shades of grey. Being able to interpret these and work together towards truly living them, will require some difficult conversations and at times, for us to course correct too.
As always, I look forward to your perspectives.