The biggest risk in your team and organisation
The silence was deafening.
A senior leadership team I was working with had just been asked their views on an important strategic initiative by the CEO.
Now this CEO was good at holding the tension of silence (perhaps through too much practice …?!) and I counted at least 20 seconds before the silence was broken by a member of the group commenting ’Yeah, sounds good’, which was followed by a number of other affirmative words and noises from other executive leaders.
‘Any comments or questions?’ The CEO continued.
Can you guess the response?
Yup… more silence followed by non-committal noises that suggested no-one had questions.
And … on to the next agenda item.
It can be easy to judge this situation, but I’m sure many of us have experienced moments where saying nothing feels like the safest choice.
So why does speaking up at work often feel so hard?
The uncomfortable truth is that we are wired for avoidance and have a natural aversion to mistakes, failures and the feelings of shame and embarrassment that can come with them.
There is a cost to these experiences that simply doesn’t exist if we maintain silence.
And this natural aversion can be reinforced through cultural norms that create a climate of ‘artificial harmony’ whereby people’s desire to maintain harmonious working relationships means they are reluctant to share their perspective, to disagree or be vulnerable; they are unwilling to admit their mistakes, acknowledge their weaknesses or ask for help.
So, it’s not surprising that speaking up feels risky and silence feels the safer bet.
Because in the moment, silence is cost free.
But there is a significant hidden cost to silence.
Silence is the biggest risk in any team or organisation.
When people stop talking it means they’re not sharing their ideas, their thoughts, their questions, their concerns, the challenges they see coming and the opportunities ahead.
It means that our collective wisdom and learning are not being harnessed to help us navigate the future more effectively.
It means whilst their bodies are in the room their hearts and minds are not.
And yet we know that one of the most important strategies for avoiding failures in our workplaces is encouraging a preference for speaking up openly and quickly about small things before they snowball into larger failures.
We cannot address what remains unspoken, unacknowledged and beneath the surface.
So how, as leaders, can we ‘break’ the silence?
If silence feels cost free and speaking up feels risky, our role as leaders is to create a team climate where we flip this equation, so that it feels less costly to speak up than it does to remain silent.
And one way to do this is by inviting generative conversations that encourage connection, allow for shared meaning to emerge and create psychological and psychosocial safety in the team.
These conversations invite us to see the good, the true and the possible by asking: What’s working well? What do we want to grow? And what can we build upon?
They help us uncover our strengths, get clear about our hopes, and find the willingness and motivation to take ownership of the changes we want to create.
Creating a conversation space where people feel they can trust the invitation to speak will take time, but generative questions that tap into our deep psychological need to feel seen, respected and appreciated will help you get there more quickly.
And if you’d like some support along the way, I have a resource here that could help you.
Until next time keep asking generative questions to ‘break’ the silence, because that’s what good looks like…