Lifting the Curse of Organizational Silence (3 of 3)

Part 3: Resilience, courage, vulnerability, and alliances

Lifting the Curse of Organizational Silence: Resilience courage vulnerability

Having an understanding of what we mean by voice and silence [Part 1] as well as the organizational structures structures, leadership practices, and beliefs – the root causes – that create the systems that promotes the behaviors behind the curse, [Part 2] let’s now explore what it takes to continue a journey of change from a team members’ perspective.

Think about your organization or work unit. Do they value innovation and employee participation? If you believe the answer is “yes,” read on.

On the other hand, if your organization is truly cursed by silence, and the risk of speaking up far exceeds the value, if you can’t quite decide between apathy or silent resistance, you can skip ahead to the conclusion!

Breaking the hard-trodden soil of silence at the worker-bee level will not be an easy task. It will take a great deal of courage, resilience, and vulnerability. It will also be tough to plow alone. That’s where alliances come in. Let’s work through all of this, one row at a time.

Prosocial Voice Increases Status

When team members are not subdued and can express their opinions, concerns, and yes, their fears, they have a “voice.”  They can “speak up” – literally using a voice from further down the hierarchy that constructively challenges the actions and opinions from those further up.

Voice is the “discretionary communication of ideas, suggestions, concerns, or opinions about work-related issues with the intent to improve organizational or unit functioning” [23]

Studies have shown compared with employees who remain silent, those who speak up are seen as more capable and independent, and also as more helpful and trustworthy, which in turn causes them to be ascribed higher status by an observer. [24]

Silence is contagious; however, so are courage and creativity Share on X

I had the opportunity to speak with Rebels at Work authors Lois Kelly and Carmen Medina.  During our conversation, Carmen was kind enough to share many of the ways she learned to fail as a team member when attempting to speak up:

  • Getting wrapped up in one’s own ego (yep – it’s all about YOU)
  • Falling in love with the team “just as it it”
  • Proposing something that is just too radical and divorced from the organization’s current core values
  • Falling in love with the problem
  • Not building alliances
  • Getting trapped in the narcissism of small differences

Lois offered insights on her own journey overcoming her tendency for acquiescent and defensive silence. She became aware of her self-censorship, hearing that internal voice:

  • “I can’t think about that now”
  • “Who am I to say?”
  • “I’ll make a fool of myself…”
  • “They won’t like it…”

Fighting back the negative self-talk, she found power in the language of positivity. Framing things differently opened up new pathways for communication and voice:

  • “I think there are possibilities ….”
  • “There’s an opportunity….” (Not “a problem”)
  • “First, let’s appreciate what’s going well”
Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes - author unknown Share on X

The power of “yet”

In a subsequent conversation with Lois Kelly and Dr Jen Frahm – author of Conversations of Change: A guide to implementing workplace change, we explored the power of “yet” for changing one’s internal dialog.

Adding “yet” to the end of a sentence can turn an old roadblock into a new challenge. It can help us set goals for the future, and open us up to finding new ways to achieve them. [25]

  • I don’t believe anyone is interested in my opinions … yet.
  • I don’t understand what is motivating my boss … yet.
  • I can’t get up in front of senior leadership because I’m just not good at giving presentations … yet.
How we talk to ourselves is as important as how we speak to others. The way we think is as crucial as what we say out loud. - Advice Not Given, Mark Epstein M.D. Share on X

Another wonderful insight from our conversation was that when we start to explore our prosocial voice, we often need to self-edit. We need to realize that not all of our ideas are equally good. We’d be better off identifying one really good idea we have and starting there, with discipline.

When we find that “one really good idea” and are ready to move beyond “yet,” we need to draw on a mix of nutrients.

Tap into your character strengths

We come out of the womb with three skills: we can eat, sleep, and poop. Fortunately, as we grow up most of us develop many new capacities. Utilizing these will help you in your journey.

There are twenty-four measurable “universal character strengths” that fit into six classes of virtues:

  1. Wisdom and Knowledge
  2. Courage
  3. Humanity
  4. Justice
  5. Temperance
  6. Transcendence

For the visual amongst us, here’s a codex of those character strengths:

24 universal character strengths

Source: Peterson and Seligman, 2004

If you’re not exactly sure which of these you have in spades, well, there’s a way to measure: click here to take a free character strengths survey. (By the way, the survey is a wonderful tool for team lift-offs, or resets.)

In my chat with Lois Kelly and Dr. Jen Frahm we explored how people can tap into their character strengths to help themselves, their teams and their organizations move out of the rut of the status quo and instead propagate a better future state.

The three most powerful character strengths when it comes to changing the status quo are: courage, resilience, and vulnerability.

Let’s start with courage

Why start here? For one, to quote poet Maya Angelou, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”

What do we mean by the word “courage”? The dictionary definition is: “the ability to do something that frightens one.”

I also like General Patton’s definition: “Courage is fear holding on one minute longer.”

We need the spunk to step up and take risks that go against the grain. To paraphrase Jason Little, we need to take the daily risk of getting fired by challenging the status quo and doing so with respect and professional courtesy. Talk about stoutheartedness.

Lois, who co-facilitates Courage Camp with Daniel Doucette @braveshift, emphasizes the four traits that make up courage:

  1. Honesty/Integrity: speaking the truth, acting in a genuine, sincere way, and taking responsibility for your own feelings and actions.
  2. Perseverance/Persistence: sticking with what’s important and getting things done despite obstacles.
  3. Vitality/Zest: bringing enthusiasm and energy to how you live. Not doing things half-heartedly. Feeling alive and optimistic.
  4. Bravery: not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty or pain. Speaking up for what is right and acting on your convictions even if they’re unpopular.

Where are those traits on your VIA Character Strengths Survey? In the top five? Ten? If not, you can either cultivate them or build alliances with others to bolster your other skills. (More on alliances in a bit.)

Five aspects of resilience

On to the next element: Resilience.

Dictionary definition: capacity to adapt to stress or loss healthfully

Lois has a great perspective on the value of this strength:

Resiliency practices help you keep going, find meaning in the often long and political process of creating change, and see the good in [organizations] – even on days that can feel like you’re lost in a bureaucratic hairball. Without the capacity to stay resilient, rebels often suffer, becoming bitter, angry and not the best versions of themselves. And then they serve no one well – not their organizations, not their family and friends, not themselves [26]

Daryl Conner, in blog post series provides a framework to building our power of resilience when working up and down the hills of change.

  • Positivity: seeing possibilities in even the most discouraging of situations
  • Focus: knowing what’s important, and having a clear sense of priorities
  • Flexibility: in the midst of ambiguity, complexity, and chaos, the ability to generate a wide range of options and ideas
  • Organization: building plans, creating systems and structures to work effectively, and use their energy efficiently
  • Proactivity: ability to carry out experiments with less than complete information

Conner writes, “Balance among these characteristics is important. Each of them plays a role in adapting to change. Each situation calls for its own mix of these “change muscles.” It’s possible to overuse or underuse any of them, so the best strategy is to build strength across the board, so you can call on whichever element is most necessary to address the challenges you face in the moment.” [27] (You can read much more of Conner’s thinking in his book: Managing At the Speed of Change.

During our podcast chat Lois shared her four favorite practices for building those resiliency muscles:

  1. Keep a daily journal and record three good things that happened every day. (Somedays you might just have to settle for one!) My daughter Sophie calls this practice ”What made you smile today?”
  2. Appreciate your workmates. (Case in point: you’ve been reading this blog a bit. Maybe take a quick break. Go express some gratitude to someone. What the person has done doesn’t have to be a huge thing. In fact it could be one of those tiny, everyday occurrences that may seem relatively insignificant yet made a difference to how the day, or even the past hour, went. For you, for the team, for your customers. I bet you can do it in under five seconds flat.  I’ll wait…)
  3. Practice self-compassion and being kind to yourself.
  4. Be in awe – take a walk outside, look at a single flower, or the entire sky.

Dr. Jen had more exercises to help build your resilience muscles to work thru change: [28]

  • Work at being optimistic
  • Take stock of your strengths and achievements
  • Focus on flexibility – play with the idea of letting go
  • Flip fears into opportunities
  • Invest in your career development proactively
  • Pay attention to emerging trends
  • Celebrate successes and achievements
  • Set goals / review existing goals
  • Think about circles of control, influence and concern
  • And finally, embrace vulnerability

Embrace vulnerability – say wot!?

I don’t know about you, but that last one: embrace vulnerability catches me by surprise.

Vulnerability.  Definition: the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.

In our conversation, Jen Frahm unpacked vulnerability for me, explaining that when she thinks of the opposite of resilience she thinks of brittle. Rigid. As in will crack under pressure or tension. Brittle people might look strong on the outside, but their faces are set in a permanent grimace. It’s their mask.

Brene Brown talks of the culture of “lock and load” where we armor up emotionally to prevent people from seeing what we fear (our faults, failures and uncertainties). When people are hiding their weaknesses they have less chance to overcome them. [29] In addition, fear of being vulnerable makes it impossible to build a strong foundation for trust on a team. [30]

The opposite of that armor, of that rigidness, is vulnerability, where people are comfortable with other people knowing that they are work in progress. They ask for help. They have no need to “lock and load.” They show up humble, warts and all. Not only is there more ability to respond to complexity and chaos, there’s a greater possibility for innovation, creativity and change.

My friend Brad Stokes, when reviewing early drafts of this post, shared this thought:

Humility is the provenance of the strong. Humility without strength is just weakness in fancy shoes

There are risks and costs to a program of action. But they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction. John F. Kennedy Share on X

As we explore our vulnerability, we might say (out loud or in our own heads) things like:

  • I can’t do that here because….
  • That won’t work in this environment…

This pattern needs to shift, and an ever so simple change creates an all so mighty potential. As mentioned above (See: The power of “yet”) start by adding the word “yet.”

  • I can’t do that here yet.. …

One word, three letters. See the power?

Getting beyond the “yet” is where alliances come in.

(If you want to explore fear and vulnerability yourself or with your teams, check out this retrospective. And learn more from Brene Brown via her TED Talks and YouTube videos.)

Alliances – aka Everyone needs a crew

Definition: “A relationship based on an affinity in interests, nature, or qualities; a union or association formed for mutual benefit”

On this journey, no one will make it far alone. You’ll need a crew to support you as you move away from the familiar.

These crews can be in many forms. Lois Kelly views them as “packs” [31] – a way of visualizing that I adore. We do find comfort in a herd no matter how weird. The first three types of packs are from Lois. The fourth type of alliance, the inner board room, comes via Geoff Watts. [32]

  • The Support Pack: a process focused group, best at figuring out “how we get this thru”  as well as “how do we step forward and act?”
  • The Wild Pack: brave and crazy thinkers, less concerned about how to get buy-in, and more about making the ideas amazing
  • The Caring Pack: tend to our souls, support our growth as we explore our vulnerabilities. Maybe even calling us on our blind spots, on our hot button sensitivity. They help us reflect on our pain so we can make progress.
  • The Inner Board Room: A range of people: Parent, spouse, coach, a friend from college days, previous-boss, school teacher, mentor, best friend. People who can have an influential, perhaps ruthless, or even simplifying presence in your life and your decisions.

Building coalitions, alliances for combined action, up, down, and across your organization will help you remove barriers, encourage speaking up, and spark creativity to make changes that really matters.

All of these alliances will support you at different times during your journey to “lift the curse”. They are that “Powerful Coalition” from Dr. John Kotter’s 8-step change model. [33] (Step 1 is “create a sense of urgency,” and I assume you’ve at least got at least a semblance of that, or you wouldn’t still be reading this…)

Now What?

Whew. I think we’ve plowed of the end of the last row. I don’t know about you, but I need to take a break. Sit on the front porch for a spell. Enjoy a glass of something cool and ponder:

  • How do we create a sense of urgency (without manipulating or manufacturing information)?
  • How do we have real dialog that involves everyone, valuing diversity and inclusion, over closed doors
  • Maybe a dive into BJ Fogg’s behavior model that explore the three elements that must converge at the same moment for change to take root: motivation, ability, and trigger.
  • How does complexity of mind (socialize, self-authoring, self-transforming mind) impact organizational silence/voice behavior for individuals?
  • How is silence treated and managed between and across different cultures?
  • Workplace bullying and employee silence (a situation in which an employee feels constantly and persistently subjected to negative behaviors at the hands of others, typically by those in supervisory positions, or bullying of workers subject to an H-1B visa).
  • When we create experiments, we get to see how the ecosystem responds. Then we can amplify the good. Dampen the not so good. But how do we dissipate the lingering effects of the curse?
  • By constructively challenging the status quo, all of us can help our organizations innovate and adapt. But how do we truly dismantle the systems that promoted dysfunctional behavior in the first place? Can we prevent a recurrence?
  • How do we know if we’ve given things our best shot, and if we still couldn’t change where we work, that it is time to update the résumé and change where we work?


  1.  Morrison, E. W. (2011). Employee Voice Behavior: Integration and Directions for Future Research. p. 375.
  2.  Weiss, M., & Morrison, E.W. (2018, in press). Speaking up and moving up: How voice can enhance employees’ social status. Journal of Organizational Behavior.
  3.  The Power of “Yet” by Lynda Wallace
  4.  Lois Kelly
  7.  Kegan, Robert; Lahey, Lisa Laskow. An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. Harvard Business Review Press.
  8.  Lencioni, Patrick M., The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Enhanced Edition: A Leadership Fable (J-B Lencioni Series) (p. 188). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  10.  Watts, Geoff. Product Mastery: From Good to Great Product Ownership (p. 254). Inspect & Adapt Ltd. Kindle Edition.

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