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Silence Stifles: Five Ways to Create Voice in Your Organization
Tuesday, April 21, 2015
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How many of your organization’s employees show up for work each day, but in reality have quit?  They do not perform to their potential and their true talent range is undiscovered both to themselves and to others.  They fail to speak out, share information and extend themselves because they work in a “culture of silence”.

A culture of silence exists when where there is no “real” communication between employees and the leadership team, little if any strategic redeployment of talent, and misaligned skills development.

Why do employees fail to communicate? Probably they spoke out in the past and received no follow-up or feedback. They saw peers speak out and be chastised. They came to believe that their attempts at communication were futile. They concluded it was better to play it safe. Go along to get along. Be silent. Sound familiar?

An additional concern is that silent employees may leave. They may move to organizations where they believe that their talent will be recognized, feedback will be heard, and idea generation encouraged.

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Silence is a crisis in corporate America. Where does it come from?  Leaders often believe that they know better than their employees. They may think that they have all the correct answers and thus a responsibility to control. They do not inquire but rather require adherence.  And for sure, they are not aware of the silence they have created.  Employees internalize cultural cues and signals to determine appropriate behavior.

Everything leaders do and say is a cue.  Leaders who tell versus ask, punish versus coach, judge versus listen, and affirm versus learn foster a culture of silence.  This causes employees to revert to a state of psychological safety – silence. Willful withholding of information, avoidance of risk, and other counter-productive work behaviors stifle talent development.

What a CLO Can Do

What can you do to promote a move from a silent culture to a culture of voice?  To maintain honesty and transparency, to ensure knowledge transfer, to make or pass on recommendations based on valid information or accurate feedback, and to develop human capital strategies aligned with current and future business objectives, you need unfettered and unvarnished communication with management teams, employees, leadership, board members, and the CEO.

After becoming aware of a culture of silence and the role you and your organization’s leaders may play in its creation, here are five recommendations for creating a “culture of voice”.  These behaviors are for you to model and encourage among your C-Suite peers.

  1. Examine beliefs about your workforce. Rather than thinking that leaders know it all, believe that all your human capital is smart.  Adopt learning orientation characterize by curiosity, realizing there is much to learn.
  2. Be available.  Mingle with employees and start asking questions rather than challenging behaviors.
  3. Be approachable.  Know that your verbal and non-verbal communication has a large impact on others. Be conscious of eye contact, facial expression, and tone of voice.
  4. Listen.  Pause for several seconds after someone speaks, signaling that you really listened and want even more input. 
  5. End meetings and conversations by asking if there are any other opinions or information to be shared.

As a chief talent development officer, you have a responsibility to recognize the signs of silence, make your co-leaders aware of their roles in creating silence, communicate the impact of silence, provide feedback mechanisms, and offer recommendations for creating voice.  The result - honesty and transparency in your organization.
Bogosian, R. (2012). Engaging Organizational Voice: A phenomenological study of employees' lived experiences of silence in work setting.

Kahn, W.A. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work.

About the Author
Christine Casper is co-author with Rob Bogosian of Breaking Corporate Silence: How High-Influence Leaders Create Cultures of Voice.
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