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Overcoming Organizational Silence.

It has long been said that silence is golden. Disasters resulting from workplace silence, such as Wells Fargo or the Harvey Weinstein scandal, demonstrate quite the opposite effect. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, many organizations have tipped the ante in their effort to build respective workplace environments where people feel safe to speak out, voice concerns about inappropriate behavior, and act in a way that is congruent with their values without fear of negative consequences.

Although organizations may verbalize openness and psychological safety, most cultures send implicit signals to employees that they should remain silent. As a result, we develop self-protective theories about when and why it is appropriate to engage our voice. Overcoming these implicit theories is a critical step if we are to find effective ways to voice and act on our values in the workplace.

Implicit voice theory governs whether people feel able or not to speak up based on their past experiences and is largely driven by a range of unconscious thoughts and behaviors. Often these theories develop as a result of fear or defensiveness ("If I say something about someone more senior than me, they'll think I'm criticizing them. They could get back at me and make my life miserable.") but they can also be more strategic and purposeful or a consequence of disengagement ("Those above me aren't open to input and nothing will be done even if I speak up"). Prosocial silence can also occur where individuals are silent for altruistic reasons ("I should not say anything in case they lose their job"). The purposes and motivations behind silence are multidimensional and complex and breaking this pattern of implicit voice theories starts with leaders.

Encouraging employee participation and voice through rewards and incentives is often the go-to solution by most organizations, and while this can result in increased innovation, receptiveness to change, and a perception of greater psychological safety, it is unlikely to have lasting impact. Rewarding employees for speaking up through companywide initiatives doesn't account for how individual managers respond when employees speak up on any given occasion. Managers at all levels may exhibit behaviors that impede upward communication (i.e. negative responses to employee voice), and it is therefore understandable how climates of silence develop when managers' inclinations can be to react negatively to those who engage in voice.

A more powerful way to disarm negative managerial reactions is to train managers on the psychology of silence, the factors that influence their team's inclination to speak up, and how to respond to all types of voice (even a challenging voice) as an opportunity. Actions like this will demonstrate to employees that there are positive consequences when they exercise their voice and support the notion of a "speak up" culture.

Finally, some caution should be exercised in order to avoid the destructiveness of a call-out culture that has been observed on western college campuses and commented on by authors such as Jonathan Haidt. Behavior that was once considered an insensitive gaff is now considered to fall under the category of micro-aggression and instead of expecting to encounter different perspectives, students reject any viewpoint that's different as an assault on their human rights.

Organizations should focus on training their managers to promote a climate where people feel safe to give voice to their values whilst balancing this with respect for difference and curiosity about alternative viewpoints.

Mary-Clare Race, Ph.D., is President at Mind Gym Inc. She can be reached at
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Title Annotation:COUNTERPONT
Author:Race, Mary-Clare
Publication:People & Strategy
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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