Corporate silence can defined as a shared sense among employees that it is wise to remain silent about certain issues or decisions and it is far more widespread than we might usually assume. In this post I share 26 strategies to help break the silence.
A good way to prevent silence from occurring in the first place is to make it a priority to foster a work environment in which people feel safe to speak up and believe this will make a difference. This involves establishing a sense of psychological safety, taking away for example the belief that one will be labelled negatively for speaking-up. Managers with a lot of authority need to be especially careful not to punish people, explicitly or implicitly, for speaking out, particularly on issues that may be difficult for the organization to deal with.
Secondly, managers need to demonstrate that they take feedback and suggestions from co-workers seriously. This means at the least that they will need to give proper feedback on what has been done with employees’ input and why. Thirdly, the creation of channels and media that help employees voice their ideas, suggestions and concerns does not only facilitate the conversation but also signals that the organization is serious about facilitating employee voice.
So what can you do to create a work environment which stimulates employees to participate in the conversation? Here are some of the best examples I have found.
What leaders can do
- Demonstrate empathy and active listening.
- Recognize that you make mistakes too and emphasize the value of teamwork to reduce perceptions of power distance.
- Silence the leader. Leaders often promote self-censorship by expressing their own views early, thus discouraging disagreement. Leaders and high-status members can do groups a big service by indicating a willingness and a desire to hear uniquely held information. They can also refuse to take a firm position at the outset and in that way make space for more information to emerge. Listen to every idea and proposal as if it could be the greatest thing ever invented. Suspend your preconceived notions and just listen. When people know they are listened to, it is a clear indication that their voice has merit.
- Stick to the 20/80 rule. To build and sustain a culture of voice, give your views 20% of the time and listen and draw out the views of everyone else 80% of time. You’ll be surprised by what you can learn and what you will hear, if you stay quiet long enough for others to express their ideas, experiences and views.
- Make it easy. Be available and approachable. Mingle with employees. Ask questions, listen to responses. Be conscious of your eye contact, facial expression and tone of voice
- Encourage. Ask for opinions or updates at the end of meetings. Pause and ask again, so they know you are sincere.
- Public praise and herofication. Recognize employees who speak-up as the heroes they are. As Jack Welch puts it: “The key to get a hundred people to speak up is to publicly reward the first one who does. Highlight and reward people who take a risk and raise crucial issues. In a public forum, praise individuals who surface sensitive problems or challenge management.”1
- Prime for sensitive issues. Priming is triggering some thought or association by expressing it explicitly. If you want people to ask tough questions mention the sensitive topic yourself and ask people to share their doubts and criticisms. When people don’t feel safe speaking up, leaders can show that it is safe by saying the hard things themselves. Then make sure to acknowledge the concerns that are expressed and invite participants to discuss the topic further.
- Lead by teaching. Go beyond encouraging openness and help teaching it. How to have “crucial conversations” — how to diffuse strong emotions, how to speak candidly without provoking resistance, how to quickly build rapport, and so on. As people acquire these new skills, their confidence in speaking up increases. It best starts from the top: when the CEO personally spends time to spread the skills this shows how invested he is in having open conversations.
- Sacrifice your ego. Show your vulnerability. If you are seen as unapproachable ask your team-members to help you out. Tell them you would appreciate any specific feedback anyone would be willing to offer.”
- Feedback and follow-up. To convince employees that speaking-up makes a difference it is crucial that managers demonstrate they take feedback and suggesties seriously. At the very least this requires feedback as to what has been done with employees’ suggestions and why.
Channels that stimulate voice
- “Shoot-to-kill” sessions with top management, where employees are encouraged to take their best shot with their most difficult questions.
- Editorial communication. Issues, certainly sensitive ones, need to be placed on the organizational agenda. Not once, but repeatedly. This can also be done by inviting outside parties to the discussion, through interviews, but even more effective in physical sessions.
- Work visits, lunches or dialogue sessions with small groups of employees where people can give direct feedback.
- Direction-setting sessions. A separate category are joint work sessions with the objective of setting the course of the organization.1
- Online jam sessions. A famous example is IBM’s Innovation Jam, a 3-day mass online targeted dialogue. One of the sessions included more than 150,000 participants. It encompasses several phases such as identifying the goal and determining categories and subjects for discussion. The actual discussion is structured into two jam phases, each followed by a review until the “winning” options are identified. Jam sessions like this require a fair amount of preparation, moderation, technology and follow-up. The rewards, in the form of innovative ideas and commitment, can be even bigger.
- Voice agents. Putting together a group of ‘voice agents’ who dare to think differently. One way to do this is by identifying trusted influencers using a tool for social network analysis.1
- Online feedback tools such as Tinypulse and Wiggle can be used to invite, collect, process and analyze employees’ opinions on just about anything. Fast, simple and anonymously
- Internal social networks such as Yammer, Chatter and Jive. The collective employee voice expressed through social media may turn out to become a very influential one, provided that employees perceive the communication climate as safe enough to voice their authentic thoughts and opinions and see the point of joining the collective conversation.
Breaking silence in groups
Groups have their own particular ways of contributing to silence. Here are some ways to avoid them.
- Reward group success. When people identify with the group’s success they are more likely to share what they know.
- Assign roles. If a group wants to obtain all relevant information that its members hold, they should be told before deliberations begin that each has a different and relevant role—or at least distinctive informationto contribute. A well-known example is The 6 Thinking Hats method by Edward de Bono.
- Establish contrarian teams. This method known as “red teaming” is related to appointing a devil’s advocate, only more effective. Red teams come in two basic forms: those that try to defeat the primary team in a simulated mission, and those that construct the strongest possible case against a proposal or a plan.
- Anonymity. Anonymity insulates group members from reputational pressures and thus reduces the problem of self-silencing. The Delphi method is a famous example but rather complicated to do. While anonimity may certainly encourage people to voice their ideas it hardly serves as a sign of openness and trust.
What employees can do
- Recognize your power. Our superiors certainly have formal power over us, but it’s also true that their performance depends on how well we are doing. And knowing that should empower you to speak up and help him appreciate your point of view.
- Act deviantly. To break the walls of silence, sometimes we have to act deviantly—for example, by choosing to ask tough questions at a company meeting where employees normally just accept the decisions of top management.
- Build a coalition. Reaching out to others can give us the strength to break the hold of silence. Not only is it easier to speak up when we know we’re not alone, but a coalition also carries more legitimacy and resources. Even though it may feel threatening to approach people to join forces with you, it is surprising how often you may find that many people feel the same way you do.
Breaking the silence can bring an outpouring of fresh ideas from all levels of an organization. Some of these ideas might just raise the organization’s performance to a whole new level. If you have any additions to the list, please speak-up and let me know!
Just one more thing. Mapping your organization’s communication climate is crucial if you are serious about employee voice, participation and collaboration. It is easy and painless, like taking your pulse. As it happens, corporate silence is rooted in personal traits of individual employees and in cultural traits of the organization. These traits are hardwired in your brain and you will not be consciously aware of them. This will make you blind to the signs of silence and will make you underestimate their impact. You need to confront yourself with the hard facts about the subjective collective feelings residing within your organization.
1) Derived from or inspired on Mark Blok (2012), “Breaking corporate silence doorbreken – The power of openness”