The culture of silence and how to overcome it

He had a really good idea for an improvement, but he didn’t share it because he was afraid of being mocked. She quit her job, even though she was good at it, because an employee in a position of trust kept harassing her.  If only they had said something. A culture of silence is characterised by employees withholding work-related ideas or refraining from speaking up when they see or are subjected to offensive behaviour. The silence manifests itself when employees avoid asking questions or expressing their concerns to a manager. It’s not the employee’s problem; it’s an organisational problem because it creates a culture where mistakes are not recognised in time. The silence means that information does not reach those who have the power to enact changes. This lowers everyone’s opportunity to learn from mistakes while simultaneously increasing the risk of unethical conduct. 


Research conducted across different cultures shows that there are four main reasons why people in organisations feel incapable of sharing information or speaking up about offensive and unethical conduct:  

  1. FearConcerns about career opportunities being negatively impacted. You’re afraid of being labelled as ‘difficult to work with’ if you say something that’s unpopular, controversial or meant to be a secret. Fear-based silence discourages many people from being whistleblowers and taking advantage of opportunities to speak up, even though they know they ought to.  
  1. Resignation: Withholding information because you don’t believe speaking up will make a difference, as people within the organisation don’t appear to be willing to listen.  
  1. Social reasons: Withholding information to protect your superiors or colleagues from being humiliated or exposed for fraudulent conduct.  
  1. Opportunism: When someone monopolises knowledge for their own benefit or to avoid creating more work for themselves. (Knoll, Ottsen et al., 2021) 

While cultural variations do exist, it’s clear that silence is generally associated with distance to power. Managers in organisations characterised by hierarchy are more likely to have employees who passively accept things the way they are and quickly conform. Employees remain silent to avoid conflicts, which increases the risk of management missing out on important information. In contrast, employees in organisations characterised by a more collective and horizontal structure have been found to be more likely to express their views.  


When you create a safe environment within teams across the organisation, you are laying the foundation for better collective intelligence. Psychological safety is therefore a way to become more productive as an organisation. Psychological safety means that employees feel comfortable enough to be themselves and take risks without the fear of rejection or embarrassment. Research on psychological safety has shown that the best-performing organisations are those where managers are role models, taking the lead in terms of openly talking about the mistakes they’ve made so that others can learn from them, as well as being inviting and inquisitive in their approach to welcoming dialogue.  This creates an environment and organisational culture characterised by trust and respect, where employees feel free to express thoughts and feelings related to their work (Edmondson, 2018). When managers listen to the issues faced by employees in the organisation and ask inquisitive questions, they boost the organisation-wide sense of psychological safety.  


The following seven tips can help the managers in your organisation become more inclusive and create a safe environment: 

1. Be available: Managers needs to be present and personally involved. Simply saying “my door’s always open” is not enough. Managers need to make themselves available and seek out discussion, thus making it easy to maintain a dialogue with them. 
2. Speak out when you don’t know something: When managers say that they need help to solve a given problem, that honesty reveals a human side that emboldens others to also share their concerns. 
3. Demonstrate fallibility: Managers should recognise that it is natural to fail – by being open about their own mistakes and situations in which they will not always succeed.  
4. Encourage contributions from others: When managers ask others for input and recognise their contributions, employees are motivated to make an extra effort and be more involved. 
5. Learn from mistakes: Instead of criticising people for initiatives that failed, consider their mistakes an opportunity to learn something. Share your own stories of learning from mistakes. When a manager is open about mistakes they’ve made, everyone can learn from them. 
6. Use clear and direct speech: Be clear and unambiguous in your communication. If a policy has been set and the framework is clear, it’s much easier for employees to take action and relate to communication from management.  
7. Employees should be held accountable for their own actions: Psychological safety also means that everyone knows what is expected of them and that there are consequences for not meeting these expectations. There should be clear consequences for knowingly breaking the rules, thereby ensuring that employees are held accountable in a fair and consistent manner. 

Organisations that actively work to foster psychological safety have far greater success when it comes to sharing knowledge and creating a culture in which people speak their mind and report any observations of unethical or offensive behaviour to management. The journey towards a safe culture starts with managers themselves being aware of their own power and qualities. 

Read more about the background study here:  

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