Three Beliefs Leaders Hold About Employees That Cause Silence

August 5, 2011

Organizational silence is a shared belief among employees that speaking up is unwise. Employees have learned that when they share information about issues or problems, the organization reaps all the benefits while they bear the costs.

One of the causes of silence at work is the behavior of managers. Through the things they say and do, managers send signals that employees interpret as reasons to avoid or even fear speaking up. The silencing behavior of managers is rooted in beliefs they hold about employees and the nature of management. Elizabeth Morrison and Frances Milliken identify three of these unstated beliefs managers hold that can lead to silence:

1.     Employees are self-interested and untrustworthy

2.     Top management, not employees, always knows best about issues of organizational importance.

3.     Unity, agreement, and consensus are signs of organizational health, while disagreement and dissent should be avoided

These beliefs manifest in behaviors and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If managers believe that employees are self-interested and untrustworthy, managers will either intentionally or unintentionally act in ways that discourage employees from coming to them with sensitive information. Employees who feel shut out of the decision making process and unable to express their views may respond by becoming less trusting of their managers and less committed to the organization. Managers then say to themselves and each other “see, we were right about those folks.”

If you are self-interested and untrustworthy, it’s likely you hold these beliefs about others. It’s also highly unlikely that you can admit to yourself and others that you are a jerk.

If you never approach your boss with bad news, I’d bet your employees rarely approach you with bad news. It’s impossible to encourage in others behaviors you don’t practice. You might have good open door rhetoric, but your employees know the truth about your intentions toward them and have unfortunately adjusted their behavior to conform to your real expectations.

The behavior you observe in your employees is often as much a statement about you as it is about them. If you don’t like what you see your employees doing, first look in the mirror. It’s not easy to identify and confront your unstated beliefs, but learning to continually improve yourself is the best thing you can do to improve the performance of your people and your business.

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Comments (6)

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  1. Great post, Bret! I think its very important for the management team of any company to recognize the value of employees who speak their mind. There are so many instances where the employees have a lot more valuable information on company operations of the day to day and on client interaction. Keep up your hard work and great posts!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Alyssa! Employees are the engine of competitiveness. Unfortunately too many managers have it in their inflated skulls that they are the key to the success of the business. Employees with the courage to give 100% and to speak their mind when they see things that need to be fixed are golden. Thanks! Bret

  2. Valerie Iravani says:

    Thanks for the blog post. It’s so true and I tweeted it to my followers immediately. One other factor that causes silence is how an executive manages his/her time. If his/her EA is instructed to discourage casual visits from employees, employees don’t get the chance to share ideas or passions that might be of value to the business. Execs should schedule truly “Open Door” hours when anyone can drop in to make sure their gatekeepers and busy schedules put up a false barrier to innovation and employee engagement!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Valerie. Gate keepers have a lot of power. For execs that use it, social media can also open up channels of communication. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  3. Alex Dail says:

    People stop talking when they get the idea you are really only hearing, but not listening. It happens more than just with the person with whom a leader is conversing, the watchers are getting an education too.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Alex. Excellent point about the watchers getting an education too. As a leader, one of the most important things you need to realize is that you are always on stage, always teaching people the story of who you are and how you operate. Thanks for sharing! Bret