Monday, July 9, 2012

Manager Mondays: Dealing With The Silence, Part 1

Welcome to Manager Mondays, a weekly feature about good workforce messaging.  Today we're starting a 2-part series about getting silent employees to speak up.

Here's a common business communications scenario:
a. A manager sees something that alerts him to a potential problem.
b. That manager investigates the issue in question by asking his direct reports.
c. Crickets.*

Does this ever happen to you?

If it does, then you may be in need of some serious crisis intervention, and not even know it.  Because worker silence in the workplace is usually a tip-off that the culture is polarized, and communications are pretty badly stifled.

More about polarized culture in a future post.  It's a big topic and I want to give it big treatment, eventually.  For now, let's just focus on fixing those silent shrugs and  zipped lips.

In his somewhat dated but still-insightful book, Unblocking Organizational Communication, pioneering British behavioral scientist Dave Francis tells us that the number one reason for silent employees is insufficient trust.  He states that in order to have communication that sustains a healthy community, a condition of high trust is indispensable.  Francis defines high trust as a state in which "people trust those with power."  (Similarly, one of my other favorite authorities on organizational dynamics, Pat Lencioni, identifies lack of trust as the most basic dysfunction in his well-known book The Five Dysfunctions of A Team.)  

Francis describes high trust as an 'enabling force' that allows organizational vitality to flow constructively.  That means that people are working for the organization, not against it.  He calls high trust "the outcome of a sound 'psychological contact' between leaders and led."  Where trust is not high, people tend to use use silence as a barbed wire barricade to protect themselves.

To Turn Down The Silence, Turn Up The Trust

Francis' three-part recipe for developing high trust in the workplace is simple:
  • honesty
  • consistency
  • realism
So, here's a very simple two-part diagnostic to identify the source of any silence, using these three measures to evaluate how high the trust is in your group.

First, ask yourself: How do I score my own messaging?   Think back to your interchanges over the past year or so.  Give yourself a grade for each of these criteria on a scale of 0 to 10. For instance, for honesty, 1 would equal "I lie all the time," and 10 would equal "I always tell the truth."  (For extra credit, you can also ask a couple of your staff members to grade your messaging in these three areas.  But if they shoot a reply right back to you and give you 3 10's, be warned: you are either a communications god, or you may have far deeper trust problems than you realize!)

Second, once you have your own scores figured out, ask yourself:  How does my parent organization's messaging score on these three fronts?  Think of recent awareness campaigns, media events, press releases, and organizational announcements from the C-suite.  Do your top execs have blogs,  send newsletters, make speeches, or post videos on the company website?  Then consider those as well.   Include any messaging that goes to you and your level of management, as well as messaging targeted to the whole organization and the public.  How honest, consistent, and realistic have they been lately?

This little armchair exercise can give you a pretty reliable indication of where any silence-causing gaps in trust are originating.  They can also pinpoint where the communications repair work has to start.  Because if trust is not high in any one of these areas, fear will tend to permeate the whole culture.  And where there is fear, people don't open up -- they clam up.

The truth is, a company can spend huge amounts of time and technology developing ways to capture employee feedback, but if the top-down messaging doesn't score well in the areas above, any money spent on surveys, studies, and suggestion boxes will produce skewed results. In fact, such efforts can actually increase the communication distortion.  In my jaded opinion, the more that a company employs external consultants to find out what its employees are really thinking and feeling, the more prone it may be to massage the ultimate findings beyond recognition to protect the top executives' version of reality --  making it all a wasted exercise.  In such a case, the board and the shareholders may hear a perky presentation on company morale, complete with pie charts and percentages --  but everyone else winds up in the same roomful of crickets, as stony silences persist. 

Regardless of how well your company is doing, is there a way for you to increase the honest feedback from your troops?  Yes -- simply by adhering to rigorous discipline in the simple areas of honesty, consistency, realism -- and above all, acting from honorable motives.  Or as a highly-trusted colleague of mine once put it when asked about her own approach: "doing the right thing."  The wonderful news:  there is nothing that is preventing you from shifting gears today to do honest, consistent, and realistic messaging... in all your interactions, in all situations, with all your people.  It may take some personal rewiring, but the results are well worth it.  

The Consequences of Crickets

Here's a true story to illustrate the importance of dismantling the communications barricades at your workplace. Last Friday I had lunch with my friend Laura, a top-performing and well-respected health care professional who recently changed jobs.  I asked her how it was going.  "Oh, my new job is so much better. It's like night and day!" she exulted.  Intrigued -- and thinking of future blog posts --  I invited her to tell me more.  It turned out that her new place of employment was within the same health care network as her old one, in her same health care field of concentration.  Plus, she was doing exactly the same things she did in her old job.  The big difference was the climate.  "At this office, everyone just cares. The staff and the bosses are friendly and open with each other.  You can say how you really feel."

In Laura's case, high trust was the make-or-break factor in her decision about where she would contribute her considerable skills, expertise, integrity and talent.  This brings to mind one of my personal career mottoes (and I have many):  "Healthy organizations attract healthy people; unhealthy organizations attract unhealthy people."  

Do you want to attract and keep high-calibre Lauras on your team?  You need to deal with the silence.  

Silence in the workplace says plenty .  If you suspect that you aren't hearing trustworthy feedback from your people, turn your inner investigative camera on yourself for a while and rank your own trustworthiness.  Then start messaging so that your staff gets the message that it's safe to open up.  

Can your staff say how they really feel, without fearing repercussion?  Do you speak with them honestly, consistently and realistically -- so they feel able to do the same with you?  

If your company has crickets*, the only effective exterminator you can call is yourself.  

How does the topic of workplace silence resonate with you?  Leave a comment below... and return next week for Dealing With The Silence, Part 2.

*For my international readers: crickets are American insects who emit soft chirping sounds at night, when all other noises have ceased. They've come to symbolize an environment of utter unbroken quiet.


  1. Fully agree on this, Beth. It's related to a blog written by a management consultant (Jurgen Apello) at here:

    The idea is that an organization is a complex social entity. As such, a manager or leader is a PART of that complex system. Therefore, how a leader carries himself or herself in the organization creates the organization. And thus, if a leader ain't open, then alas, neither will be the people.

    Looking forward to Part 2!


  2. Thanks, Ronian. I like your picture of the leader being part of a complex system and therefore having some degree of responsibility for the health of that system. When managers abdicate that responsibility, an organization can quickly become unhealthy (or unhealthiER).

    Thanks also for your link to Jurgen's comments. I hope others who visit here take the time to follow that link and read his excellent take on the manager's role. It's right in line with my own personal observations. It does seem that too many companies are expanding that role in directions that may sound good in task force meetings, but end up being counter-productive on the shop floor -- and exacerbate silences rather than alleviate them.