Workplace environments are not always as inclusive as we would like them to be, and one or more of us may feel that we don’t quite fit in, or agree with the status quo. Consequently silence may feel like the easiest and safest option if there are fears of social or professional reprisal for voicing concerns.
Socially such repercussions may include experiences and perceptions of gossip, exclusion, scapegoating or mobbing. Professionally, they may include being overlooked for a promotion, feeling micromanaged, or receiving a warning, a disciplinary or dismissal.
This article will explore the causes and consequences of silence on workplace dynamics and productivity, rather than silence as a stand in conflict and “the silent treatment”, which are covered in an earlier blog.
UNVEILING THE REASONS:
When our fear of speaking up is such that we opt for silence, we are essentially fleeing from or freezing in a situation. We keep our head down, swallow our words, ideas and feelings for fear of the consequences of exposure. Silence driven by fear is an active choice. In the workplace silence is often influenced by the following five factors:
- Personality, Behaviour and Communication Styles: What is considered acceptable and respectful can vary and cause some to feel intimidated and disrespected but afraid to speak up. This is most common when the other person is socially influential and/ or a senior worker.
- An overt or covert culture of reprisal when raising an issue. It is overt if there is a pattern of frequent disciplinary action or dismissal; and covert, if gossip and scapegoating are commonplace consequences.
- Perceiving the workplace as cliquey can render those who disagree, or consider themselves a minority, to not feel safe to voice their views for fear of (further) social alienation. Their silence can be in not speaking at all, or in pretending to agree with the majority.
- Self-esteem: Being assertive is not easy for everyone and needing to express oneself and face repercussions or follow through, may create anxiety. Self-esteem may also affect one’s confidence to share ideas and opinions (particularly if those around are assured and vocal).
- Making mistakes: It is not always easy to admit to a mistake and the fear of repercussions can convince us that blame, denial and silence are the best options. Silence can include asking another to keep our secret, or vice-versa.
Underlying all five factors is the fear of social and professional exclusion.
This fear can be both real and anticipated. It is real when there is an overt culture of reprisals and intimidation, and anticipated, when individuals feel themselves to already be in the minority or not on a par with others (as in the case of self-esteem).
SPIRAL OF SILENCE
In both cases, this fear can lead us into a ‘spiral of silence’. This theory suggests that the less vocal the minority is, the more the majority grows in strength, leaving the minority feeling increasingly isolated. The spiral is finally broken when the more outspoken members of the minority finally speak up. While Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann introduced it to describe mass communication, it is equally valid for workplace relations and group dynamics. So what are the consequences of this spiral of silence?
PERSONAL, SOCIAL AND PROFESSIONAL COSTS OF SILENCE:
On a personal level, keeping something to ourselves can slowly eat away at us and pervade our emotional and physical wellbeing.
Consequences can include:
- Obsessive thoughts
- Unexpressed anger that can result in shame and depression
- Irritability and distraction
- Sleeplessness and ill-health
- Social withdrawal and a sense of marginalization
Feelings of insecurity and paranoia can also grow and we may convince ourselves that what we are witnessing validates our assumptions of the situation. While we may not share our feelings with anyone, our silence will reverberate in the office.
Interpersonally, this silence can appear antagonistic (the silent treatment). Moreover, while some may choose not to confide in anyone at all, others will seek to offload on colleagues or have their position validated by gaining allies.
This type of sharing can take the form of:
- Gossip, festering resentment and possibly talking repetitively about ‘the story’ (and potentially losing their interest after a while)
- Scapegoating and labeling (e.g. “S/he is a bully!”)
- Forming cliques who complain, gossip and perhaps make passive-aggressive remarks and facial expressions that are subsequently denied.
While nothing has been directly expressed the result is an escalation of tensions that debilitate the wellbeing of those involved and affect the harmony of the workplace.
When silence is unaddressed and left to fester, it can have professionally detrimental consequences.
- Absenteeism and high employee turnover
- Apathy and the loss of good ideas and perspectives (particularly if there is a tendency towards negativity or even plagiarism of ideas)
- Team disagreements and alliances that result in misinformation and deceit
- Employer’s reputation and a dysfunctional workplace environment
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO MANAGE IT?
Ensuring that the workplace environment is deemed safe for all, means:
- Treating each other with respect: means polite, non-inflammatory language, tone and behaviour. It means objecting the behaviour not the person, respecting boundaries and taking turns to speak and listen. Simply put: treating others as we would like to be treated – not as we think they deserve to be treated, or as we’re willing to tolerate being treated.
- Make requests rather than demands: Guilt-tripping or shaming others into action results in resentment and increases secrecy, deceit and gossip. Allowing someone to say ‘no’ to working late for instance ensures that communication is on an equal footing irrespective of rank. This in turn increases the possibility of compromise and the standard of work.
- Move away from blame; own your perspective and perceptions: Speaking in the “I” means that we take responsibility for our experience, feelings and requests. Taking responsibility also means exploring how we may have contributed to a breakdown in communication. Taking responsibility means moving towards mutual problem-solving, which in turn can encourage transparency.
- Address issues when they arise: inviting someone to clarify a situation in private can minimize gossip. If there is reticence, be willing to allow time for the other to accept. This time can be used by both parties for self-reflection about contribution, as well as the effect prolonged silence may be having on the situation and the workplace environment.
- Apply the ‘Invisible Person Test’ when speaking about another person: how might they feel if they overheard your conversation? Angry, hurt, happy, indifferent? Supporting one another to apply this test can help minimize workplace gossip. Besides, when someone gossips about others they are likely to gossip about you too!
When it comes to workplace dynamics, one cannot expect emotions to be left at the door or for difficult relations to vanish by themselves. The more they are left unaddressed, the more they become entrenched and resentment festers.
To ensure this doesn’t happen it means that it’s everyone’s responsibility to create and maintain a safe and respectful environment where direct and clear communication, without reprisals, is the norm.