In earlier times miners would often take a canary with them into the mine shaft. A bird collapsing under the ground meant air poisoning and immediate evacuation. In our time an emerging culture of silence may serve as a similar warning system. If employees stop voicing concerns and ideas and conversations grind to a halt, calamity may well be lurking in the dark.
Culture of fear
A culture of silence is almost always at play in corporate fraudes and meltdowns. Enron, Tyco and WorldCom are examples that made headlines across the world in the beginning of this century. Top management in these organizations often engaged in questionable practices for years without any serious opposition.
Consciously instilling fear in people is often a trademark behavior of these leaders. Critical voices are systematically ignored, ridiculed, intimidated and, if necessary, eliminated by termination of employment or business contracts. Under these circumstances a shared understanding that speaking up is either dangerous or futile will start to emerge. This feeling then spreads through the mechanism of ‘social contagion’ and before long looking the other way becomes the new normal.
“Corporate silence is a condition under which employees, regardless of their position, do not speak-up and remain silent, intentionally withholding relevant knowledge.”
– Morrison & Milliken
Tip of the iceberg
A culture of silence – also known organizational or corporate silence – is more common than we think. Power relations and social pressure nudge people into agreeableness. Silence is certainly not always related to fraud. People stay silent about all sorts of things: what is the best strategy, what is working well, what ideas deserves funding and so on. In other words, the fraud-related cases of corporate silence we read about in the papers is no more than the tip of the iceberg.
Declining engagement and collaboration
A culture of silence sparks all kinds of other evils – employees feeling miserable, lack of collaboration and disengagement. The undesirable outcomes range from failing products, broken processes, mistaken decisions, to damaged reputations, gradual decline and indeed sometimes, sudden corporate meltdown.
Heads in the sand
Corporate scandals are often dismissed as incidents in an otherwise healthy system. The solution then is simple and painless: remove the rotten apple from the basket and life continues as before. A critical analysis of the system that has enabled such excesses does not happen. The likely outcome is that history will repeat itself.
Fostering dialogue and feedback
Organizations can protect themselves from this kind of evil to a considerable extent. A good first step is to strengthen governance, compliance rules and checks and balances. The most sustainable approach is to actively foster a culture of openness, feedback and dialogue.
Living up to corporate values
Secondly organizations need to start taking their own values seriously. In a recent blog I described how Netflix ensures that everybody, regardless of their formal or informal authority, lives up to the corporate values – honesty and selflessness for example. Netflix rightly holds that “the actual company values – as opposed to the nice-sounding values, are shown by who gets rewarded, promoted or let go.”
Fostering a strong culture rooted in “credible” values and a work environment in which people feel safe to speak-up are the best options an organization has to protect itself from the whims of egomaniacs, whether they are CEO, team supervisor or just some brilliant jerk as Netflix puts it.
The canary and the coalmine
A culture of vibrant and authentic dialogue is a proxy for organizational vitality and resilience. You can see it and you can feel it. So, should you come to notice a pattern of silence in your organization, remember the tale of the canary and the coal mine.
In my next blog I will examine what causes employees to remain silent and what can be done to avoid or break a culture of silence.