Lifting the Curse of Organizational Silence (2/3)

Part 2: Digging through the soil to get to the roots

leadership behaviors

With a shared definition of the dimensions of silence and voice as well as an understanding of why silence is not golden [Part 1], let’s explore some of the organizational dynamics and leadership behaviors that cause employees to feel their opinions are not valued and result in disengaged or self-protective behaviors.

Structures and Practices

First, the coexistence of command & control with an agile transformation leads to a cognitive dissonance, where values, beliefs, leadership behaviors and principles conflict:

  • Team members feel a lack of agency
  • There’s low commitment and low trust
  • There’s low motivation, low satisfaction
  • And there’s high team member turnover

Next, formal hierarchies and high power distance indexes can dampen contributions from those with lower status where the structure is actively enforced, e.g., “Have your VP talk to my VP…”

Related to high power distance, are workers on H-1B visas. If a foreign worker in H-1B status is dismissed from the sponsoring employer, the worker must either apply for and be granted a change of status, find another employer, or leave the United States. Talk about incentives to “grin and bear it.”

A heavy reliance on contingent workers can lead to a view by management that a portion of the “resource pool” is especially self-interested and they are likely untrustworthy. [13] This is compounded when the emphasis is on the relationship as customer and vendor, instead of a true partnership. Without a true partnership, voice will not be able to flourish. Vendors / contractors will hesitate before making suggestions. They have a tendency to “protect their position,” to ensure their safety should things go wrong. [14] They will stand more on ceremony and avoid taking risks.

The pointy-haired manager syndrome. Managers also may have inherent and dysfunctional concepts such as believing that employees (not just the contractors/vendors) are by and large selfish and untrustworthy. Managers can be attached to the idea that only they understand the important problems in organization best, and that harmony, obedience and consistency are the embodiment of a healthy organization. As illustrated by Scott Adams’ comic strip Dilbert and a conversation about trust shared by Geoff Watts: A manager said, “People are lazy and you can’t trust lazy people with important decisions. If you give people autonomy over their own work, then they will just do the bare minimum. People need to be managed.” [15] Which should lead all of us to an interesting question: “Really? If that’s true, who’s been hiring these people?”

The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him. Henry Stimson Share on X

Have you got more values, beliefs and practices that stymie the growth of healthy voice in your organization? I bet you do. Share them via comments.

The impact of leadership behaviors and styles on organizational silence

Managerial styles and personalities also get in the way of employees saying what they know. Disengagement or self-protection is used as a coping strategy by employees to deal with a lack of psychological safety. [16] Managers may contribute to the feeling of danger through:

  • A destructive personality or abusive supervision
  • Narcissism and/or self-centeredness – “The emperor has no clothes”
  • Neuroticism or stubbornness – “I’m never wrong”
  • Insecurity, feeling threatened by input from employees [17]
  • Laziness
  • A concern with exerting power and exercising influence over others than achieving results
  • Lack of regular recognition
Organizational silence allows complacency and mediocrity to flourish. Share on X

How Big of a Problem is Organizational Silence?

Sadly, there’s evidence that the dominant choice within many organizations is for employees to withhold their opinions and concerns. A 1991 study showed that only 29 percent of first-level supervisors thought that their organization encouraged employees to express opinions openly. [18]

In another study from that same year, researchers interviewed employees from various organizations throughout the United States. The interviews revealed that more than 70 percent indicated that they felt afraid to speak up about issues or problems that they encountered at work. [19]

If you are not a fan of (somewhat dated) secondary research, you can generate your own data, if you dare. Some academic approaches can be found here:

There’s also a simple and direct retrospective survey on levels of team safety you can conduct. A single question: “How likely am I to bring forward my ideas about change?” Participants answer, anonymously:

5 = No problem, I’ll talk about anything;

4 = I’ll talk about almost anything; a few things might be hard;

3 = I’ll talk about some things, but others will be hard to say;

2 = I’m not going to say much; I’ll let others bring up issues;

1 = I’ll smile, claim everything is great and agree with the managers.

0 = I need to leave the room. Right now. Really.

Well, You Know, We All Want to Change the World

As a leader at any level, where to start if your organization is cursed by silence? First, ask yourself, “Am I ok with complacency and mediocrity?” If you are, why are you still reading? Get back to your cube…you must have PPT transitions to perfect. If you’re not, you’ve got a couple of options:

  1. Commit: Help change the status quo
  2. Cope: Stop caring so much
  3. Exit: Go work somewhere else

There was an article a while back in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) Why Employees are Afraid to Speak in which the authors’ findings suggest that encouraging prosocial speech isn’t “simply a matter of removing obvious barriers, such as a volatile leader or the threat of a summary dismissal (though that would help). …[it] requires deep cultural changes that alter how they understand the likely costs (personal and immediate) versus benefits (organizational and future) of speaking up.”

When dysfunctional silence is multi-modal in its causes, we need to address in a multi-modal manner.

Cultural Shifts at the Management Layer

Managers – listen to yourself and your peers. Do you often hear the following?

  • “Who are you to tell me that?”
  • “Not very team-like to say that.”
  • “That’s not how we do things here.”
  • “There’s no proof, is there?”
  • “If you only knew more…”
  • “That’s a career-limiting move.”
  • “Don’t embarrass me.”
  • “Let’s keep this to ourselves, ok?”

Pause for a moment and reflect. Do these words encourage speaking up or shutting down? Can you see how certain kinds of language destroy psychological safety, particularly those lower down the “chain of command”?

Look at things from a different angle. How would you like your organization to experience the following outcomes:

  • Better time to market
  • Higher customer satisfaction
  • More employee satisfaction (Read “less turnover of resources”)
  • Greater reliability, innovation, responsiveness, and predictability

Yes, each and every one of those benefits go hand in hand with increased levels of prosocial voice. So why on earth would you want acquiescent or defensive behavior from the smart people you’ve hired?

Start with a change in leaders’ voice

Studies have shown that leaders who speak in collective terms, for example by frequently using the inclusive first-person plural (we, us, our) or by providing invitations and appreciations, are perceived as more open for input than those who do not. Think of the last time you asked any of the following questions:

  • “What do you think?”
  • “Do you have any ideas?”
  • “Yes, thank you, that’s a great idea!”

Take a risk

Leaders, when you’re ready to take a greater risk: be brave, be humble, accept discomfort. Embrace the uncertainty that comes with ch-ch-changes as you move from #Boss to #EffectiveLeader. Add to your repertoire questions like:

  • What did I get wrong?
  • What am I missing?
  • How would you do it differently?
  • What do you see that we could be doing better?

Calm your amygdala down…  ask the question and then force yourself to reply with just the following phrase: ”Thank you for that feedback.” [20]

You can learn so much more from your mistakes than from your successes.

... taking risks is a muscle to be developed and used often - or it atrophies - @rebelsatwork Share on X

Share micro-recognition

Daily props and kudos help create a positive psychological environment. I’m not talking grand scale stuff here. Simple acknowledgments that are public. That have some hang time. There are a ton of tools that make this so easy:

Find something that fits in your org. Put it to use. Experiment. Create a culture hack.

Research suggests that when employees feel that they are viewed positively, they are more motivated to contribute to their organization which may lead to higher engagement and performance. [21]

Can it be that simple?

No, of course not. There’s much more to it, but the above is a great starting point for leadership behavior changes that will begin to increase the level of safety on a team. (You can read more on about psychological safety and the impact it has on team performance at Google’s re:Work site.)

Behind that shift in voice is a shift in values. There’s a better way to lead. [22]

Learn to value:

  • Listening and seeking to understand over telling people what to do
  • Debating over directing (Finding insights in disagreements)
  • Participative decision making and intent-based leadership over being the decider
  • Persuading over giving orders
  • Learning over knowing (Giving up a desire for “certainty”)

To borrow a well-known phrase: while there is value in the items on the right, learn to value the items on the left more.

In part 3/3, we take a look at what it takes to change the status quo from the team member level. Spoiler Alert: Lots of Courage, Resilience, and Vulnerability. Oh, and one more thing: Alliances.


  1.  Rousseau, D., & Parks, J. M. 1993. The contracts of individuals and organizations. In L. L. Cummings & B. M. Staw (Eds.), Research in organizational behavior, vol. 15: 1-47. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
  2.  Watts, Geoff. Product Mastery: From Good to Great Product Ownership (p. 191). Inspect & Adapt Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  3.  Watts, Geoff. Product Mastery: From Good to Great Product Ownership (p. 189). Inspect & Adapt Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  4.  Are You Hiding from Your Boss? Leader’s Destructive Personality and Employee Silence Article in Social Behavior and Personality An International Journal · August 2017
  5.  Fast, N. J., Burris, E. R., & Bartel, C. A. (2014). Managing to stay in the dark: Managerial self-efficacy, ego defensiveness, and the aversion to employee voice. Academy of Management Journal, 57(4), 1013-1034.),
  6.  Moskal, B. S. 1991. Is industry ready for adult relationships? Industry Week, January 21: 18-25.
  7.  Ryan, K. D., & Oestreich, D. K. 1991. Driving fear out of the workplace: How to overcome the invisible barriers to quality, productivity, and innovation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  8.  Yes, I know, you’d rather have your fingers and toes dipped in tempura batter and deep fried in 350°F canola oil – but take this approach for a test drive. You won’t get it right the first time. Nevertheless, you might be surprised by the mileage you get from just trying.
  9.  Janssen, O., & Gao, L. (2015). Supervisory responsiveness and employee self-perceived status and voice behavior. Journal of Management, 41(7), 1854–1872. doi:10.1177/0149206312471386
  10.  Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity

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