A Culture of Silence is one where employees willfully withhold important work related information. This is not because they are bad people but because there is something inherently wrong with the leader/employee relationship. It may sound like a dull cliché to say, “it starts with the leader” but in the case of Cultures of Silence, research shows that this is usually the case.
In a recent study, finance and information technology department employees show higher levels of overall Cultures of Silence when compared to portfolio management and client services. Across industries, 20% of employees surveyed say “They are unwilling to speak up with suggestions for change”. The number one reason is futility.
Employees felt that expressing their views would be a “waste of time” even though their ideas or information could benefit the company.
20% of employees surveyed say that they do not share different views or contrary ideas because it may threaten their job security and personal safety. This withholding of important work related information is rooted in fear. The Employee Culture will do whatever it takes to self-protect. When employees perceive an environmental threat (i.e. organizational restructure, merger, divestiture, process change) it can represent a threat. So, to stay safe, employees tend to stay under the radar until they believe it is safe to look up again. Collectively, this silence can represent a risk to companies in times when important information should be moving across silos at lightning speed. To help reduce the fear factor, during any restructure, or change initiative, leaders should tell what they know, as soon as (legally or ethically) possible.
Declaring an “open door policy” is a good start and more must be done to prove it because the Employee Culture watches closely for proof and disproof or every leadership declaration and ideological message.
33% of employees say that it is easier to support common ideas expressed in a group than offer a different or contrary view. When leaders hear everyone agreeing easily in a group meeting, it may be worthwhile to ask one question and wait 45 seconds for a response: “Who sees this differently”?
29% of employees surveyed say they did not get credit for ideas given to management in the past and, 18% say that as a result, they will “hesitate” to offer ideas in the future.
When leaders use others’ ideas and neglect to give credit, the Employee Culture will always notice. The interpretation is rarely positive and usually causes silence and a hesitation to offer ideas again. This is called Offensive Silence and it has retaliatory roots. This is not due to insidious employees but rather an attempt to settle a perceived injustice. This may be stating the obvious, but leaders should never use others ideas’ without giving proper credit. The associate culture will find out and when they do the leader’s brand and trust suffers.
Approximately 33% of employees surveyed say that they refuse to divulge information that could harm the organization and that they protect confidential company information. This silence type is known as Social Silence. It can be a double-edged sword especially if there is no conduit for employees to raise a flag when something confidential represents a risk to the company. When this is the case, employees should feel (psychologically) safe to properly share this information rather than withhold it.
Cultures of Silence and Culture of Voice are measurable and should be benchmarked yearly to identify the strengths and types of silence and voice in a company.
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To learn more about RVB Associates, Inc. research analytics partner, Virtue Analytics, Inc., visit, http://www.virtueanalytics.com