Stalemate: Are you building a culture of silence?

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Courage. Trust. Great teams have these, weak teams don’t.

There is nothing quite so disappointing as a group of talented people who can’t achieve because they lack mutual trust. Likewise, it’s tough to see folks who can’t speak up because they either don’t have the courage or don’t trust their colleagues enough to listen to what they have to say and react constructively.

With dwindling trust or courage, you’re building yourself a culture of silence. This manifests itself in very destructive ways:

  • People do not speak up. Even when it is important for the progress of the team and company, people are reluctant to voice their opinions. It takes individuals with tremendous courage to speak up and when they do, they are labeled as dissenters and not supported even though they are saying what everyone wants to say — but won’t dare.
  • There is no room for failure. Most successes are preceded by wonderful failures. Not having the trust of leadership or colleagues eliminates failure as an option and stifles innovation. If you can’t fail for fear of retribution, you probably aren’t going to succeed at higher levels.
  • Nobody challenges each other. If I think you’ll try to sabotage me or get revenge because I disagree with you, I’m going to be less likely to challenge your points and assumptions. I won’t be vested in your success enough to challenge your core arguments. Healthy discourse goes out the window and those with the loudest voice — or those who speak first — start winning out.
  • Your true talent bleeds. People with better options don’t tolerate a culture of silence. They recognize lack of trust and leave fairly quickly for better opportunities. You often won’t hear about why they really left. It’s always the “opportunity I couldn’t pass up.” As you might suspect, there’s usually more to it than that.
  • Politics run rampant. In an environment where nobody truly knows where people stand, extroverts get a lot of credit and overshadow the silent majority. Politics, defined as, “people advancing their careers or agendas by means other than merit and contribution,” replaces any meritocracy with a bureaucracy. Ben Horowitz wrote a good post about politics.

Here’s how you can prevent building this culture of silence:

  • Listen to people. People who do not listen or practice in selective listening do not trust the speaker enough to consider they may be right. Maybe you’re formulating your response before they are done talking. Maybe they are just totally wrong. Either way, if you start talking immediately after someone makes a point and come back with 10 reasons why they are wrong you are telling them something very clear: I do not trust you and I don’t value your opinion. Don’t do this — just listen.
  • Forget about blame. Blame is a huge waste of time in most cases. Can you recall any time you pointed out it was someone’s else’s fault where working with that person again was easy? If so, congratulations; that might be the first time in human history. Assume the best in your colleagues. Allow them room to fail and help them. It will pay off tenfold in the long run.
  • Sort things out directly without bosses. I can’t recall a time where cc-ing someone’s boss resulted in a positive outcome. Adults tend to work things out directly and when they can’t, they escalate. If you conduct normal business thinking, “if I say something, it could go directly to my boss,” you’re going to say less — or agonize over what to say. Try to work things out with people directly and avoid involving their superiors unless you’ve already tried and didn’t get results. You just might be able to resolve things with less drama and avoid losing trust.
  • Don’t play the victim. Everybody hates you and you’re just trying to do your job, right? I remember hearing stuff like this; I think it came from 6 years olds dealing with their first exposure to groups of other people. It has no place at work. Excuses, blaming others, entertaining all forms of outward influences as plausible scapegoats before addressing what you did or what you could have done differently is a good way to lose people’s trust and confidence in you — it’s also mentally exhausting. If you play the victim and enter meetings like mama bear protecting her cubs, you’re going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t be a victim. Be strong. People will respect you for it.
  • Avoid character attacks. Maybe you think Jim is a huge asshole. Maybe Mike is crazy and he gets on your nerves. Maybe Jenny said something that hurt your feelings. A good way to screw yourself is to be irresponsible in how you share this internal dialogue. Vent to your friends, your partner, whatever — but keep it clean — always. Word gets around and you don’t want people to hear your internal dialogue. Keep the nasty stuff to yourself. Don’t play that game — everyone loses when it becomes too personal or vindictive.

Organizations lacking trust and courage can generate both noise and silence at inopportune times. Those who get drowned out have a lot to offer; the analytical, the listeners, the silent majority contribute just as much to the long-term health of the organization.

So speak up, be heard, but always listen to others. Trust they are saying things for the right reasons — give them the time they deserve before you hammer their opinions into tiny itty-bitty pieces. After all, their next point may be brilliant. But you’d never know if they lacked the courage to speak in a room full of people ready to pounce.