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The Danger of Silent Employees

  • Blog
  • 28 February 2023

The Danger of Silent Employees

How a Culture of Silence is slowly eating away at your Company

Most of us believe someone will speak when something negative happens at work, but in the real world today, few actually do or are willing to do.

Some happenings in the office create a very adversarial atmosphere. Everyone is walking on eggshells around specific people or a person. The majority would rather do that persons work rather than engage with them. Sometime, even management might even keep a distance. This could go on for years, and even until that person left the organisation.

Instead of confronting a problem in a strategic and timely way, this prolonged silence, allows rumours to spread and expand.

What are the costs and consequences of this kind of silence? Over 1,000 managers and employees were interviewed about a time when they had a concern at work, but failed to voice it. Of the hundreds of cases the data gathered, five common categories of conversations emerged as the most common and costly topics that people remain silent around.

They include:

Prickly peers. Failure to confront rude, abrasive, defensive, or disrespectful colleagues. Examples included failing to confront harsh language, backbiting, bullying, harassment, withholding information, and resistance to feedback and input. It happens in almost all parts of the world.

Strategic missteps. Failure to speak up when proposals and procedures are riddled with inaccuracies or faulty thinking. The problem is exacerbated when key leadership make decisions without first consulting experts or is unresponsive to employee concerns.

Lazy or incompetent colleagues. Failure to talk to peers and direct reports about poor work habits, incompetence and lack of engagement.

Abusive bosses. Especially bullying behaviour and discrimination. Failure to openly discuss or confront about damage done when people in power resort to their position to push their own agenda. Many horrible cases are silently covered up.

Management chaos. Failure to get clarification when people feel uncertain around roles, responsibilities, specs, and timelines. A perceived lack of safety to share concerns without retribution makes asking for clarification feel risky.

Instead of speaking up in these situations, our subjects admitted to engaging in one or more resource-sapping behaviours including: complaining to others (78%), doing extra or unnecessary work (66%), ruminating about the problem (53%), or getting angry (50%).

These behaviours aren’t just unhelpful; they’re costly. We found the average person wasted 7 days complaining, doing unnecessary work, ruminating about the problem, or getting angry — instead of speaking up. A shocking 40% of our respondents admitted to wasting two weeks or more.

The hit to the bottom line is even more remarkable. The average person estimated the cost of silence at $7,500, and 20% of our sample estimated the cost of avoiding a difficult conversation to be more than $50,000.

Our subjects described ways that silence damages employee engagement, relationships, deadlines, budgets, and culture. Given that the fact that every one of our subjects identified at least one costly example, we concluded that it’s likely that every employee in your organization is adding to the cumulative organizational cost of silence eating away at your bottom line.

Luckily, cultures of silence can be changed — but only if leaders become teachers and models of candour. People won’t speak up unless they feel safe and able to do so. When leaders engage in dialogue, people acquire both the skills to present their concerns and the confidence to share their views. They also speak up knowing their thoughts, opinions, and views are welcomed and valued.

Here are four key tactics for transforming a culture of silence into a culture of dialogue. DON’T RUSH IT TAKLES TIME TO REBUILD TRUST & GAIN CONFIDENCE.  

These strategies are the results of thousands of hours of observation of those who speak up about even very risky topics, but do so in a way that doesn’t provoke defensiveness in others.

  1. Reverse your thinking. Most of us decide whether to speak up or not, by considering the risks of doing so. Those who are best at having crucial conversations don’t think first about the risks of speaking up. They think first about the risks of not speaking up. This simple reversal of risk assessment makes them far more likely to speak up.
  1. Change your emotions. The reason these conversations often go poorly is because we are irritated, angry, or disgusted. Our counterparts react to these emotions more than the words we speak. So, before talking, open your mind. Try to see others as reasonable, rational, and decent human beings—a practice that softens strong emotions and ensures you come across more agreeably.
  1. Make others feel safe. People become defensive when they feel unsafe. Start a high-stakes conversation by assuring the other person of your positive intentions and your respect for them. When others feel respected and trust your motives, they feel safe, let their guard down, and begin to listen – even if the topic is unpleasant.
  1. Invite dialogue. After you create an environment of safety, express your concerns, then you can invite dialogue. Encourage the other person to disagree with you. Those who are best at crucial conversations don’t just come to make their point; they come to learn.

When leaders model these behaviours, they lay the foundation for a culture of dialogue where employees can speak up, share concerns, confront colleagues, advocate for better solutions, and achieve alignment and agreement where it may be lacking. Cultures of dialogue are not only full of happier, more engaged employees — they also reap the kind of bottom-line results that can mean the difference between success and failure.

For further information on strategies to improve your workplace relationships, culture and effectiveness, please find your local office here.

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