Silenced Into Submission?

When Organizations Can’t Handle Your Voice


When Organizations Can’t Handle Your Voice

I recently read a blog that quotes Tim McClure, “When passionate employees become quiet, it usually sends a signal that the work environment has become very dysfunctional. Suspicion and insecurity clouds (sic) the culture and employees retreat into self-protection behavior patterns to protect themselves from the forces within the company.”

First, I don’t know Tim McClure. But he’s at least, half right.

Have you ever worked at an organization in which silence isn’t only a symptom of dysfunction, but the INTENDED PURPOSE of the leadership?

I worked for an academic institution which, upon arrival and once settled into my leadership role, I began seeing issues to fix. Easily fixable problems, not the monumental earth-shaking type. As I taught my Leadership graduate classes, Kouzes and Posner identified challenging the process as one of the top five practices of exemplary leaders.

So, I began asking questions in a professionally appropriate manner; mostly the “why?” questions. (Thanks, Simon Sinek.)

In those early days, I was told, “You ask really good questions.” When I left five years later I’d been told, “You need to stop asking questions!”

Over time I realized that this organization truly believed it did not need improvement. Why not? Oops, there I go asking questions again.

What might silence mean in your organization?

· Silence may be symptomatic of an overall organization ethos

· Silence may be the result of internal confusion, stress and loss of vision

· Silence may be forced on employees because leaders and managers cannot countenance contrary opinions

· Silence may be the employee’s only option to survive in that environment

Let’s look at one scenario that may explain all these possibilities.

There are organizations, often family-owned or single-owner enterprises, in which “their” way has become the single way to success. Now, Fundamentalism is a moniker often used for religious organizations or philosophies. However the very notion that all things must fundamentally be done only one way is not the exclusive domain of religions.

In these environments, contrary opinions, leaders or employees who question methods, operating procedures or outcome reports, are often seen as dissenters. Or worse, someone trying to break the one-way-code of the organization. Those thinkers becomes threats. And threats must be silenced.

It happens in politics. It happens in business. It happens in churches.

Why? Another question. Sorry.

Because people who think differently pose a threat to the security of the box. One-way thinking is safe. One-way thinking provides security (certainly not growth or positive advancements). Questioning One-way thinking means “we” may be wrong; and we know that can’t possibly be right.

So what are your options if you are a process challenger?

· Leave. If you have truly exhausted yourself hoping and working toward improvement but have been stymied repeatedly, chances are the organizational culture is far too ingrained to allow challenge, much less change. The system will win every time.

· Find an internal ally. But not a peer or fellow “malcontent.” Find a superior who may also agree with your analysis of problems and solutions. Work together to formulate plans of communication, incremental improvements and demonstrable outcomes.

· To that last point, make your point. Create proofs of concept. Actually demonstrate (in smaller and less-threatening ways) that new ideas may work, be replicable and sustainable.

When you voice is muted and you have no ability to fix the fixable, don’t be deterred. Pack up your discouragement and work to encourage others around you to join in a strategy to bring positive change.

Churchill famously said, “We shall never surrender.” Be strong. Don’t tire of doing good.

Now that’s a prescription for thriving amidst the worst conditions.

Norm Mintle