Over the next few months, I’m going to explore the importance of psychological safety. When people feel psychologically safe at work, as Amy Edmondson explains in The Fearless Organization, “they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution.”
It’s easy to see how that relates to a culture of silence. When your organisation doesn’t make people feel psychologically safe, they retreat into silence even when something makes them uncomfortable, or seems like a bad decision.
But let’s start right at the beginning. What exactly do we mean by “a culture of silence”, and why is it so dangerous?
What is a culture of silence?
When somewhere has a culture of silence, it’s difficult to challenge the status quo there. To speak up means risking formal or informal punishment or embarrassment – so no one does.
As Edmondson says in The Fearless Organization: “a culture of silence can … be understood as a culture in which the prevailing winds favor going along rather than offering one’s concerns. It is based on the assumption that most people’s voices do not offer value and thus will not be valued.”
The dangers of silence
At the most basic level, a culture of silence stops people from raising issues. And of course, sometimes issues need to be raised.
Often, the problems someone wants to address are small and easily resolved. At other times, they’re much larger and more insidious. Continually swallowing down complaints, while thinking “this would be so easy to fix” or “this is really going to cause problems down the line”, just breeds dissatisfaction.
Allow a culture of silence to take root in your workplace, and you’ll lose talented, driven employees who want to actually make positive changes. Or if not, you’ll end up with an unhappy, unmotivated and unempowered workforce. In either case, you’re undermining growth and innovation.
In the most extreme situations, the consequences are much worse. The #MeToo movement has shown that a deeply embedded culture of silence leaves many people too afraid to bring up even dangerous and illegal behaviours. Leaders are responsible for making sure their workplaces are safe, and now there are so many good resources for educating yourself on this issue – such as Sarah Beaulieu’s practical guide Breaking the Silence Habit – that there’s really no excuse.
Why psychological safety is key
What stops people speaking up is fear that a) they’ll be punished, or b) nothing will change even if they do. To create psychological safety in your workplace, leaders must show people that they won’t be penalised for raising difficult things, and that they’re receptive and open to change.
Psychological safety isn’t just about enabling people to raise issues, though. It’s also about enabling them to take criticism. If ‘difficult conversations’ are taboo in your workplace, then you suddenly critique someone’s performance or behaviour, it won’t go well – even if your critique is valid. Even a small criticism will feel like a big deal in that situation, so they’re likely to feel defensive and afraid rather than open to useful feedback.
This is why it’s so important to move past the fear of conflict.
Giving people space to speak
Even in a psychologically safe workplace, some people will find it harder than others to bring up issues. This may be about their own personality, cultural background or past trauma. A smart leader will make sure there are plenty of different ways for people to speak up, allowing for different communication styles. For example:
- Team meetings, for those who prefer group conversations.
- One-on-one meetings with managers, framed as a chance to privately bring up issues.
- Check-ins, in person or online, which may feel like less of a ‘big deal’ than formal meetings.
- An anonymous reporting procedure to someone outside the team.
Leading the way
David Maxfield notes in the Harvard Business Review that we’re used to thinking first of the risks of speaking up. To move past a damaging culture of silence, we need to think instead of the risks of staying silent.
As a leader you need to model this. It’s not enough to show people that you’ll listen to their concerns. You also need to show that you yourself will speak up when it’s called for, rather than staying silent.
That means no saying “well that’s how it is” when something about the broader company is causing problems for your team. No taking abuse from an abrasive colleague. No putting up with practices you know are outmoded or inefficient. By speaking up, especially when it’s tough, you’ll encourage healthy conflict throughout your own team or company, and help root out a culture of silence.