Posted by: A.R. Cherian | December 3, 2009

Organizational Silence

Just read an article from the NYU Stern Business School Magazine called “Sounds of Silence” by Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison and Frances J. Milliken. The main point of the piece is that in many organizations people choose to remain silent, especially if it is something detrimental regarding the CEO. Employees who know the truth about certain issues and problems facing the organization dare not to speak the truth to their superiors. Why? This the same question the authors sought to answer through their systematic academic exploration.

Many employees feel that speaking up may have negative repercussions for their position in the company and/or that speaking up does not make a difference. The authors state that this phenomena, which they call “organizational silence,” is a dangerous impediment to organizational learning and change. It hampers the growth of pluralistic organization where multiple viewpoints can be expressed and debated freely.

Negative effects of organizational silence on the organization

  • Stifles innovation. Innovation requires a context where employees can feel free to deviate from the norm and offer novel perspectives or ideas.
  • Stifles organizational learning.
    • Without dissenting viewpoints, there can be no critical self-examination of ideas or course of action.
    • By blocking negative feedback  or information, a false sense of security pervades the organization that everything is working fine. Errors can magnify over time.
  • False consensus. Top management may assume that silence is signaling consensus and success.
  • Filtering out negative information. Even if management directly asks employees for feedback, employees may carefully filter out negative information.

Negative effects of organizational silence on the employee

  • Stress and anxiety. Cognitive dissonance – a state that leads to stress because of a discrepancy between one’s belief and one’s behavior. For example, a salesman who knows that customers are unhappy with a product but cannot raise this issue to his superiors because of fears of negative repercussions may come under stress to act like there is not a problem when he really knows there is.
  • Feeling of no control. People naturally want to feel that they have control and a voice in things that affect them. Being able to express opinions gives people a greater sense of control.
  • Both of these factors can lead to
    • Reduced motivation
    • Pyschological withdrawal
    • Turnover
    • Sabotage (organizational deviant behavior)

Conditions that can lead to organizational silence

  • Managers who fear negative feedback or information (especially from people under them).
    • When negative information comes from below as opposed to above, studies have shown that it tends to be seen as less legitimate and less accurate and more threatening to one’s power and credibility.
  • An erroneous  belief that management cares more about the company than employees do.
    • Unstated beliefs that employees are only “self-interested” and that management knows whats best about issues of organizational importance.
  • An erroneous belief that unity and consensus are signs of organizational health whereas disagreement and dissent should be avoided.
  • A top management team that has been together a long time.
    • Studies have shown that the longer a team has been together, the more they favor consensus and will tend not to challenge shared assumptions.
  • A lot of levels in the organizational hierarchy and high-power distance.
  • Collective sensemaking by employees.
    • Employees will share their experiences of not being able to speak up and this becomes a cultural epidemic inside the organization as the accepted norm.
    • Sometimes this sensemaking can be erroneous or based on false assumptions (for example, the rumor that an employee lost a promotion because they spoke up).

These factors can set in motion the creation of systems that stifle the upward communication of negative information.

In conclusion, this is a problem that affects many organizations to some degree. One suggestion for breaking down the walls of silence that the authors put forth and which I agree with is that organizations should seek and reward dissenting opinions and negative information. Systems should be put in place that also allow employees to remain anonmyous if they choose to come forward with sensitive information.

Bottom Line: Once again it’s systems that will drive the behavior of the employees to speak up or to remain silent. It’s management that is responsible for creating these systems (good or bad).

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Responses

  1. thank you for a very good information i am planning to do desecration on this topic any suggestions?

  2. We are working on this topic for our college project. Can you please give us your contact details so that we can discuss about this topic in more depth.

    • Hello. I am not an expert in this field. It was only a session for me during my graduate studies and I just shared my thoughts. Perhaps you can search online for experts in this field.


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