Summary: In environments lacking openness, the cost of employee silence results in decreased productivity, loss of teamwork, missed deadlines, rework and mistakes. This “tip” provides seven powerful ways to cure silence and encourage employees to tell you what’s on their mind.
True Story: Melburn McBroom was a domineering boss, with a temper that intimidated those who worked with him. That fact might have passed unnoticed had McBroom worked in an office or factory. But McBroom was an airline pilot.
One day in 1978, McBroom’s plane was approaching Portland, Oregon, when he noticed a problem with the landing gear. So McBroom went into a holding pattern, circling the field at a high altitude while he fiddled with the mechanism.
As McBroom obsessed about the landing gear, the plane’s fuel gauges steadily approached the empty level. But his co-pilot was so fearful of McBroom’s wrath they he said nothing, even as disaster loomed. The plane crashed, killing ten people.
Unfortunately, McBroom’s cockpit is a microcosm of many of the leadership suites I have witnessed over the years where managerial domination and a culture of not sharing “bad news” contributes to producing intimidated and silent employees.
The Cost of Silence
The cost of employee silence and the withholding of their thoughts and feelings is often difficult to determine. Think, however, of the decreased productivity, loss of teamwork, missed deadlines, rework and mistakes that occur simply because people often work in settings where they find it more painful to speak up than to be silent.
In many of the meetings I have attended, there seems to be two conversations going on: The politically correct one at the table where people are nodding their heads and the unobserved one, which may be very different, going on within people’s own thoughts and feelings. Do you need proof of this? Just follow the group who attended the meeting back to their office area. There is where the “real conversation” is publicly spoken!
Cures for Silence
The cure starts with you. Your ability to listen carefully and respectfully creates authenticity. Reflect on your own style of leadership. What are you doing to create an open and safe environment for people to communicate?
Become intolerant of sarcasm, putting people down, personal labeling, and all the other ways we create fear in our people.
Teach employees to teach you. Reverse the top-down communication structure in a physical, visible and immediate way. Assign a non-management coach from deep inside the organization to each of the senior managers. Train these coaches to drum up grassroots feedback. Are managers accessible and responsive in the eyes of the employees? Do they invite feedback? Does management listen closely to challenges and questions and respond quickly and thoroughly? Meet with your coaches once a quarter as a management team and receive their reports.
Tell the whole truth to the rank and file and, in exchange, ask for their help in solving company problems – both employees` and management`s. Talk about your financial performance, product milestones, successes, failures, goals for that quarter and whether you made them or not and why.
Mythologize truth tellers and truth telling in stories and rituals. Tell and retell vivid stories about defining moments that made a difference and solidify a culture of honesty.
Become the model of honesty. Be willing to be vulnerable. You don`t have to talk about every issue or concern that crosses your mind; but you must do what you say you`re going to do, think before you judge harshly, avoid pointing fingers, and own up to your mistakes and your weaknesses.
Within your group, build mutual accountability and honest communication. Be willing to have forums where you give each other feedback – both positive and corrective as well as suggestions for improvement.