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.