Leadership : When Silence Isn't Golden

Originally appeared in Jim's column in The Globe & Mail. Jim Clemmer is a bestselling author and internationally acclaimed keynote speaker, workshop/retreat leader, and management team developer on leadership, change, customer focus, culture, teams, and personal growth. During the last 25 years he has delivered over two thousand customized keynote presentations, workshops, and retreats. Jim's five international bestselling books include The VIP Strategy, Firing on All Cylinders, Pathways to Performance, Growing the Distance, and The Leader's Digest. His web site is www.clemmer.net.

How many times have you sat through a meeting and bit your tongue when a serious workplace issue was raised - only to engage in a much franker discussion about it with colleagues outside the room?

It isn't always the issue at hand that can make people clam up. More often, it is the human dynamics that are present at the table or an organization's culture that lay the groundwork for this lack of candour at work.

Communication breakdown is a huge problem in the workplace. Call it the "moose on the table": Everyone knows this problem of lack of candour is there, but they don't want to deal with it, preferring to ignore it or pretend it doesn't exist.

The metaphor is based on the idea that the issues or problems that many teams face are like a moose standing on the meeting room table - the Canadian equivalent of the more familiar elephant in the room.

Lack of candour is an extremely complex issue, with both cause and effect tightly intertwined. But its effect can go well beyond everyday frustrations among the people who have to deal with it.

Indeed, the fallout can be deadly: One of the findings of the investigation into why space shuttle Columbia fell from the sky over Texas five years ago was NASA's organizational culture that kept safety staff and some engineers largely silent "during the events leading up to the loss of Columbia," according to the investigative board's report on the disaster.

Harvard University professors Leslie Perlow and Stephanie Williams wrote a whole book about how lack of candour can affect workplace functioning and morale.

"Many times, often with the best of intentions, people at work decide it's more productive to remain silent about their differences than to air them. There's no time, they think, or no point in going against what the boss says," according to an abstract of their 2003 book Is Silence Killing Your Company.

"But ... silencing doesn't smooth things over or make people more productive. It merely pushes differences beneath the surface and can set in motion powerfully destructive forces."

Lack of candour often stems from people not having the skills to address tough issues with each other. And so they do it poorly and raise defensiveness in others, or stir up conflict that often gets personal.

Frequently, people are afraid to speak up because they have seen others who disagreed with the boss or the team either get ostracized, moved off the promotion track or punished with the worst assignments.

Technology is also a factor: People confuse communicating with what becomes information overload, such as increased e-mail volume or too many PowerPoint slides. So, they have no time for thoughtful and difficult conversations.

As if that weren't enough, when an organization's structure is badly designed and the methods for dealing with information, work flow, products or customers are flawed, all kinds of errors, rework, waste and frustration build up.

People will frequently look at the mess that results and say: "We need better communications around here."

But in these cases, communication problems are the end result of deeper problems with processes, systems or organizational structure.

Many managers have developed a multitude of ways to shut down debate and real conversation. These include branding people as "not being on board" or "not being a team player" for disagreeing with what managers believe or want.

Or, a manager might just ignore the people who disagree in favour of those who kiss up to him or her.

Managers faced with survey data or feedback that people are unhappy will often deny it by saying something like: "That's just their perception, that's not reality."

Addressing the problem requires a two-pronged strategy. First, the barriers to team or organizational effectiveness must be broken down. Second, at a personal level, managers must help their staff overcome any fears they may have, and develop the courage to step up to tough issues and speak out about them.

One key to breaking the "conspiracy of silence" is to create safe environments that encourage everyone involved to risk "courageous conversation" - either by initiating the difficult discussion or by seeking candid opinions.

Getting candid with lack of candour. Here are steps for addressing the lack of candour:

Setting the stage

Help your team establish ground rules for how you'll work together in meetings to focus on the issues at hand. These would include ways to draw out less vocal members, not cut each other off, indulge in sniping, potshots or putdowns, and avoid judgmental statements or sweeping generalizations.

Get everyone's opinion

When major decisions need to be made, or to build a consensus, go around the table and get everyone's point of view.

Why, oh why

When presented with a problem or issue, keep asking why and digging down to the root or systemic causes. For example: "We're not communicating effectively. Why?

Bite your tongue

If you're leading a discussion, hold back on your own opinion until you've heard from most members or until all sides of the issue have been aired.

Stop meeting like this

Practice effective meeting management. If you're the meeting leader, ensure you have an agenda outlining the purpose and desired outcome (information, decision making, problem solving, etc.) of each discussion, expected time frames, who needs to be involved and the like.

What's going on?

If team members aren't sticking with the plan everyone agreed to, privately ask them why. But be mindful of how you approach this: An accusing tone or an attitude that suggests you're on a witch hunt will shut down real conversation.

Encourage debate

You might want to foment contrarian thinking just to get the juices flowing. For example, you could ask: "Who's feeling a little uncomfortable with this direction and might like to challenge our thinking on this one?"

Comfort in anonymity

Use surveys, focus groups, intranet postings and other ways that allow team members to give their views without fear of rebuke or reprisal.

Behind the scenes

You may be more successful quietly finding others in your organizations who will work with you to raise the issues in private conversations or influence opinions through informal networking activities.

Moose crossing: Does your organization silently suffer from lack of candour? Answer true or false to these questions:

The real discussions happen privately after our meetings.

  • People often appear to agree to a group plan of action and then go off and do their own thing.
  • Personal accountability and commitments are often avoided and project deadlines are routinely missed.
  • A few vocal people dominate conversations and cut off dissenting opinions before they've been fully expressed.
  • Once the team leader gives his or her opinion, everyone else agrees or remains silent.
  • Finding someone to blame for a problem or spending time explaining why it occurred is more common than trying to understand the underlying root cause.
  • Surprises regularly happen as simmering problems erupt into major issues.
  • People feel overwhelmed by too many priorities and conflicting messages about what's important.
  • We keep adding to our to-do lists and rarely spend time agreeing on what to stop doing.
  • There's a fair bit of turf protecting, simmering conflict, and people taking potshots at other departments or groups.
  • A lot of time is wasted discussing unimportant details while bigger priorities and key decisions don't get enough attention.
  • We rarely debate all sides of important issues and avoid touchy or politically sensitive topics.


If all 12 are untrue: No bull. Congratulations - you don't seem to have a moose problem. Now survey other members of your team to see if they agree with you.

1-3 true: Moose crossing ahead? There may be a sickly moose lingering in the halls.

4-7 true: Watch your step. Moose are starting to pop up all over the place. If you don't keep an eye on where you're going, you may find yourself ankle deep in moose droppings.

8-10 true: Time for action. Your organization is becoming a perfect habitat for moose. If you don't start hunting them soon, you may find the place overrun.

11 or 12 true: Face the bull. You have moose on the table: It's courageous conversation time.

Copyright 2008 Jim Clemmer

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