Organisational silence is a phenomenon that could be holding back transforming organisations. Believing that employees only speak up when they have something to say is a misconception. There are many reasons why employees remain silent, even when they have ideas that could help. In our blog Agile is a Mindset we put forward concepts for people to bring their full selves to their work in order to deliver excellence and shape innovation. Those who can
This blog specifically looks at organisational silence, which is defined as the withholding of information that would improve a situation. There are positive reasons for not speaking up, such as confidentiality or withholding proprietary knowledge, but we are looking at situations that could be improved with ideas. If speaking up and bringing ideas forward are central to creating innovative organisational culture, then a closer look at why people choose silence needs to be considered as well as some practical approaches to overcome these.
To clarify, at an individual level, employee silence is a notion which suggests that employees have something to say, rather than being silent because they do not have anything to contribute or that they consent to a situation, as it is most commonly believed. More concerning perhaps is organisational silence, a pervasive climate of silence. At an organisational level this indicates that culture and structure, in particular how managers respond to information, prevents the bringing forward of ideas. Organisational silence is a multi-dimensional outwardly passive choice. It comes about by collective sensemaking of specific conditions.
When we consider the culture of an organisation, which at Cyberconnecting we define as a dynamic process created and recreated by interactions amongst and between employees, the creation of a climate of silence is easy to comprehend.
Some of the reasons why silence may be prompted is personal preservation, such as a belief that speaking up is dangerous, or that the situation will not change even if something is said. For example, suggesting ideas for improvement may be met as a criticism of current practice or of the manager.
Collective sensemaking, usually through observation and peer discussions, will generalise and reinforce this belief with the upshot that no one attempts to put forward ideas, thus creating a climate of silence. Other reasons include structure and processes, such as the lack of forums or hierarchical communication channels. Even if the opportunity to use voice is available it does not necessarily mean it will be used.
When employees are experiencing transformational change within their organisation or even across their sector, new challenges, often unexpected, arise. Adding to this complexity is that many employees are dispersed and working through digital channels. How to raise issues or whether issues are raised at all may be harder to establish.
Voice is not the opposite of silence
New ways of working may not overcome silence
Fad or fashion, teams and some organisations are increasingly working with some form of Agile framework. Agile is based on small cross-functional self organising teams. At first glance the principles of Agile team work should overcome some of the issues related to silence as they focus on:
The most well known Agile application is Scrum, yet doing Scrum as it is actually defined can conflict with existing habits at established non-Agile organisations. For example, if we consider the objective of Scrum against the time allocated then raising organisational issues may not be given priority, thus resulting in a procedural silence. For dispersed teams, using valuable meeting time, virtual or face to face may not be conducive to offering ideas. Here perhaps is where the skills attributed to the ScrumMaster as coach, mentor, facilitator, champion, and cheerleader can best overcome some of the antecedents to silence.
Listening to silence
Conceptualising silence as multi-dimensional is an opportunity to create a culture that takes notice of silence. In turn, this enables managers to take a close look at processes, from how meetings are conducted which includes time to consider new ideas and is not simply a forum for leaders to dominate; to responses to ideas which can lead to better practice and the bringing forward of ideas.
New ways of working, using an Agile philosophy and social collaboration tools offer processes that may increase opportunities for employees to speak up. How they are implemented are crucial in building the psychological trust necessary for employees to want to speak up.
This is difficult work. As discussed, silence is a passive choice so only by listening out and noticing the response will managers know if their actions are working.
Finally, culture is dynamic, processes and procedures can aid the type of culture that is created, but it is essentially the interactions between employees that will enable innovation.
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Image: Tipping, R. 1998. Sounding Silence, located Zig Zag Reserve, Launceston, Tasmania.
Digital transformation strategist | Privacy advisor | Cyber anthropologist | Author