Silence is the slow killer of organisations.

When employees endure mistreatment from a manager and never say anything or when managers go along to get along, an opportunity is missed — to engage at work, elevate above the situation and resolve the issue together as a team. Employees that remain silent out of fear or feel that speaking up is a futile exercise can be detrimental to an organisation’s success.

In their most recent State of the American Workplace study, Gallup polled more than 25 million working Americans and found that more than 70 percent were disengaged with their careers. Gallup estimates that these employees cost the U.S. between $450 billion to $550 billion each year in lost productivity. They are more likely to steal from their companies, negatively influence their co-workers, miss work days, and drive customers away. Does a culture of silence have anything to do with these stats?

Feeling forced into silence can result in significant psychological burden. Individuals who can’t freely express their thoughts end up feeling anger, resentment or humiliation. These feelings then contaminate their interactions. They may shut down creatively, lose respect for colleagues, become less willing to compromise or work in a team and simply less productive.

So how do we gain the courage to speak up at work or encourage others to share their thoughts? Can we break this atrocious spiral of silence and replace it with open communication? The answer is yes, but to do so, we need to find the strength to act differently and push ourselves beyond our comfort zone. We need a medium where others can express themselves freely while experiencing its value.

Build support for the cause

Asking others if they feel the same about a situation and getting their support can give us the strength to break the hold of silence. It is much easier to stand up and share thoughts when we don’t feel alone. Having a team of colleagues as support will also bring more legitimacy to the conversation. Most often we may feel uneasy to approach a co-worker, but it is surprising to find out how many people feel the same way as we do.

That’s what happened to Krishan Gupta, former VP of Product at Showpad. Gupta felt frustrated and annoyed by the new expensing system that HR decided to implement for the organisation. The new system took him and his team on average 50% longer to navigate and frequently resulted in errors in expenses claimed. So after months of enduring this frustration, Gupta asked a few other colleagues about how they felt and was surprised to learn they were as frustrated as he was. This led him to draft a petition to replace the tool with a more user-friendly one. He got more than 1/2 of the organisation to sign the petition in less than a day. The results were presented to the executives, and the system was replaced almost immediately.

In the past, we’ve seen examples of organisations like Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom and just how catastrophic situations can become when silence triumphs. Silence does not have to be about fraud to cause significant damage. Time after time, behind failed products, wrong hires, broken systems or processes, and wrong decisions are employees who thought it was better to hold their tongues than to speak up. Breaking the silence can bring an outburst of original ideas from all levels within an organisation — ideas that may raise the overall performance of an organisation to an entirely new level.

This post was written by Dena Nejad.

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