I've written before about how damaging it can be to work in places that are very noisy. But this time I'd like to discuss the dangers of silence.

Elizabeth Morrison and Frances Miliken are both academics at New York University. One day they had an experience many of us can relate to: A new initiative was being proposed and all the commentary, in hallways, lunchrooms, and by the water cooler, was universally negative. The new idea was bad. Then, at the faculty meeting, when the subject came up, nobody said a word.

"Nada. No one raised one word of complaint. It just sailed on through. And that's when we thought: I wonder if that happens everywhere."

When they asked a broad range of executives whether they had ever had issues at work that they had not voiced, fully 85% said that they had, at some point, felt unable to discuss their concerns. Morrison and Miliken called this "organization silence" and their research demonstrated that there is a lot of it around.

For anyone leading an organization, this should be extremely worrying. To know what's going on, we all depend—critically—on the people around us feeling safe and comfortable enough to tell us what is on their minds. We know that the earlier a problem is addressed, the less damage it will do, and the easier it will be to fix. If most people aren't telling us what we need to know, we are all flying blind.

The primary reason people don't speak up is because they're afraid of recrimination from co-workers or their bosses. I've gone around the world talking about the immense risk that organizational silence represents and everywhere I encounter the same response: It is too dangerous to speak up. No one wants to know. Someone else can do it.

I have some sympathy with this position but it isn't infinite. Why?

  1. Leadership requires moral courage. You can't develop courage once you get to the top of an organization. It takes practice.
  2. There's a growing number of people and organizations involved in teaching people how to speak up in a way that ensures that they are heard and that they also protect themselves. What they are all learning is that there is almost always more give in the system than anyone imagines. The penalties for telling the truth aren't always there nor are they as severe as the mythology around whistleblowers suggests.
  3. Business depends fundamentally on trust. It simply doesn't work if we don't tell people what matters and what's wrong.

Don't get me wrong; I don't think this is easy. Right now I'm on the board of an organization that I believe has some severe systemic issues and I'm trying to figure out how best to present my perspective in a way that doesn't feel like an attack. I know it won't be easy. But it is what I'm there for. There just isn't anything golden about silence.