When Silence Is Not Golden: The Culture of Silence Can Be Dangerous For The Workplace

In most workplaces today, people are reluctant to speak truth to power with often disastrous consequences. Leaders must do more to encourage speaking up.

Jude King, PhD
Oct 18, 2019 · 9 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

On 29th of March 2005, Elaine, a healthy mother of two, was admitted to a hospital in England to correct a sinus problem she had suffered from for a couple of years. She was advised it would be sensible to have an operation to deal with the issue once and for all. “Don’t worry” the doctor had told her, “The risk are tiny. It’s a routine operation.”

But not long after arriving the operating table things took a quick abrupt turn. An emergency arose shortly after the anaesthetic drugs were administered. Elaine’s airway had become obstructed, resulting in a severe deterioration of oxygen supply. Staff in the operating room then made repeated attempts at inserting an inflatable pouch into her mouth that will sit just above the airway, a procedure known as “laryngoscopy” followed by tracheal intubation — the standard protocol when ventilation is proving impossible, but all with no success.

During the futile attempts, her oxygen saturation dropped below a critical level and remained so for a while. Without ventilation or other breathing support, she was admitted to the ICU some hours later, where it became clear that she had suffered severe hypoxic brain damage and that recovery would not be possible.

Elaine died on the evening of 11 April 2005.

Whenever medics face this condition of ‘can’t intubate, can’t ventilate’ — a rare but recognized complication — the standard procedure is a tracheotomy. The nursing staff identified this was the right thing to do but didn’t eventually execute this option.

Jane, the junior nurse, went to fetch the tracheotomy kit, as Matthew Syed retold this story in his book, Black Box Thinking. She came back and informed the three doctors who were surrounding Elaine that the kit was ready for use.

“They shot a glance back, but for some reason, they didn’t respond. They were continuing to try to force the tube into Elaine concealed airway at the back of her mouth. They were absorbed in their attempts, craning their necks, talking hurriedly with each other. Jane hesitated. As the seconds ticked by, the situation was becoming ever more critical. But she reasoned that three experienced consultants were at hand. They had surely considered the use of a tracheotomy. If she called out again, perhaps she would distract them. Perhaps she would be culpable if something went wrong. Perhaps they had ruled out tracheotomy for reasons she hadn’t even considered. She was one of the most junior people in the room. They were the authority figures.”

Jane’s hesitation to speak in a critical situation is a well-established problem in the corporate workplace: junior employees keeping schtum when they see their bosses heading down a wrong path. In one study investigating employee experiences with speaking up, 85% of respondents reported at least one occasion when they felt unable to raise a concern with their bosses, even though they believed the issue was important. Research has shown that only a mere 1 per cent, feel “extremely confident” voicing their concerns in the workplace in crucial instances. In another study, 93% of people say their organization is at risk of an accident waiting to happen because people are either unwilling or unable to speak up.

Organizations regularly grapple with a wide variety of problems, including unproductive processes, misaligned strategies, under-performing colleagues and ineffective policies. However, problems and their consequences are compounded when employees keep mum when they see their bosses make a strategic misstep or when a potentially dangerous situation develops that puts at risk coworkers, teams or organization as a whole. Several studies have shown that employees distort the information that they convey to their superiors, communicating upward in a way that minimizes negative information for fear of coming across as ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or insubordinate and therefore, risk losing their job. Employees weigh these costs when considering whether or not to speak up about issues and concerns.

A culture of silence can have dire consequences, argues Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, in her book, “The Fearless Organisation.” The case-studies she cited include some of the deadliest airline accidents, that looked avoidable had a junior employee spoken out. The “Tenerife disaster,” for instance, where two Boeing 747 jets collided on an island runway in the Canary Islands, igniting the two jumbo jets into flames, and killing 583 people, is still considered the worst accident in the history of civil aviation. Although the junior copilot was aware that the captain — one of the company’s most senior pilots — had misunderstood take-off instructions from air-traffic control, he did not feel safe enough to speak up to query him. Another case was the crash of NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 where all seven astronauts perished. An engineer who may have diagnosed damage to the shuttle’s wing before the flight felt unable to speak as he was “too low down” at NASA.

In most organizations, the stakes are not quite life or death, but companies suffer when employees choose reticence, and according to a recent study, employees who stay silent about a problem can cost their companies as much as $25,000.

The Volkswagen emission scandal of 2015, for instance, highlights the unpalatable consequence of a workplace environment that discourages speaking truth to power. Volkswagen engineers simply “tweaked software code” to embed instructions that would enable the cars to pass the strict US emissions tests, whereas, on the road, the so-called ‘clean diesel’ engines spewed into the atmosphere as much as 40 times the level of NOx permitted by regulations. In the midst of the scandal and subsequent blame game, Bob Lutz, Chrysler executive recalled a conversation he had at an industry dinner with Ferdinand Piesch, the long-time Volkswagen Boss. Piesch boasted about telling engineers they had six weeks to improve the bodywork fittings or face dismissal leading Lutz to speculate that Piech was “more than likely the root cause of the VW diesel-emissions scandal” because he instigated “a reign of terror and a culture where performance was driven by fear and intimidation.”

Other examples of organizations that followed this familiar script include Wells Fargo, Nokia and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. What was missing in each of these organization, Edmondson noted, was a leadership-enabled climate of psychological safety in the workplace, allowing people to speak truth to power inside the company — and, in the case of the Fed, to their industry partners. In each of these cases, a psychologically unsafe culture appeared to be working for a while, but, like a ticking bomb, it eventually exploded from within, decimating reputations of once-venerated companies.

“Nokia’s top managers and middle managers engaged in a subtle dance of mutual fear. When middle managers asked critical questions about the company’s direction, they were told to ‘focus on implementation.’ People who could not comply with top managers’ unreasonable requests were ‘labelled a loser’ or ‘put their reputations on the line.’

In a corporate culture based on fear and intimidation, all may seem well in the short term, but that only mask inevitable catastrophe in the long run. Many managers — both consciously and not — still believe in the power of fear to motivate but as brain science research has amply demonstrated, fear inhibits learning and cooperation. Research in neuroscience shows that fear consumes physiologic resources, diverting them from parts of the brain that manage working memory and process new information. This impairs analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem-solving. This is why it’s hard for people to do their best work when they are afraid. Thus, when confronted with a problem, scared workers find ways of covering it up or getting around with inefficient practices.

How do organizations ensure a workplace where employees are not cowed into silence?

The answer? Create a “psychologically safe” workplace environment, where people believe it is possible, expected and valued, that they speak up with relevant ideas, questions, concerns and even mistakes. Psychological safety describes a belief that neither the formal nor informal consequences of interpersonal risks, like asking for help or admitting a failure, will be punitive. In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake or ask for help, others will not react badly. Instead, candour is both allowed and expected. Psychological safety exists when people feel their workplace is an environment where they can speak up, offer ideas, and ask questions without fear of being punished or embarrassed.

This has profound similarity to Toyota’s lean manufacturing process, which allows every employee — up and down the hierarchy — who spots a problem to stop the production line . And the results could be similarly as impressive. The Japanese giant went on to become the planet’s best automobile company on the strength of such “open door” policy. Its largely setting a stage where people are reminded of the company’s mission and their place in achieving it; invite people to contribute their thoughts, suggestions and questions; and respond productively and with curiosity about even the wackiest ideas. Copious evidence abounds that shows that psychological safety matters. It affects measurable outcomes ranging from employee error reporting to the company’s ROI. Unfortunately, the research also makes clear that many workplaces lack psychological safety, cutting themselves off from the kinds of employee input, engagement, and learning that are so vital to success in a complex and turbulent world.

To be clear, psychological safety is not immunity from consequences, being nice, nor relaxing performance standards. In psychologically safe workplaces, people know they might fail, they might receive performance feedback that says they’re not meeting expectations, and they might lose their jobs due to changes in the industry environment or even to a lack of competence in their role. These attributes of the modern workplace are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. But a psychologically safe workplace, blends trust and respect and people are not hindered by interpersonal fear, rather they feel able — even obligated — to be candid. They fear to hold back their full participation more than they fear to share a potentially sensitive, threatening, or wrong idea.

When people have psychological safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. They are confident that they can speak up and won’t be humiliated, ignored, or blamed. They know they can ask questions when they are unsure about something. They tend to trust and respect their colleagues. When a work environment has reasonably high psychological safety, good things happen: mistakes are reported quickly so that prompt corrective action can be taken; seamless coordination across groups or departments is enabled, and potentially game-changing ideas for innovation are shared. In short, psychological safety is a crucial source of value creation in organizations operating in a complex, changing environment.

A 2015 multi-year study of teams at Google, investigated what made the best teams. Led by Julia Rozovsky, the researchers considered people’s educational backgrounds, hobbies, friends, personality traits and more, in their analysis a set of 180 teams from all over the company. They found nothing. No mix of personality types or skills or backgrounds emerged that helped explain which teams performed well and which didn’t. It seemed like there was no answer to the question of why some teams thrive and others fail. Eventually, as Duhigg wrote, the researchers “encountered the concept of psychological safety in academic papers [and] everything suddenly fell into place.” What they had discovered was that even the extremely smart, high-powered employees at Google needed a psychologically safe work environment to contribute the talents they had to offer. The team also found four other factors that helped explain team performance — clear goals, dependable colleagues, personally meaningful work, and a belief that the work has an impact. As Rozovsky put it, however, “psychological safety was by far the most important . . . it was the underpinning of the other four.”

Then, whereas psychological safety is not the only requirement for high organizational performance, it helps set a platform and takes off the brakes that keep people from achieving what’s possible. In any challenging industry setting, leaders are saddled with two key tasks. One, foster a psychologically safe environment to spur learning and avoid preventable failures; two, set high standards and inspire and enable people to reach them. Setting and maintaining high standards remains a crucial management task. So does sharing, sharpening, and continually emphasizing a worthy purpose.

The key insight here is that in most workplaces today it’s simply not possible to ensure excellence by inspecting proverbial widgets. In knowledge work, excellence cannot be measured easily and simply along the way. More to the point, it’s almost impossible to determine whether people have failed to hit the highest possible standards. It takes time for the results of uncertain programs to become clear, and reliably measuring good process is difficult. In other words, today’s leaders must motivate people to do their very best work by inspiring them, coaching them, providing feedback, and making excellence a rewarding experience. Motivating and coaching both receive substantial attention already. Combining those with an environment safe for open communication about challenges, concerns, and opportunities is one of the most important leadership responsibilities in the twenty-first century.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +755K people. Follow to join our community.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store