Sounds of Silence by Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison and Frances J. Milliken

April 28, 2010

The above article written by Elizabeth and Frances describes pretty interesting organizational ills like “the dean’s disease” that arise when leaders, managers, or supervisors have put a failed system in place full with yes people afraid of voicing their concerns, problems, opinions, or ideas, and even worse afraid of challenging their bosses’ thoughts and beliefs.

This organizational silence becomes then a potentially dangerous hindrance to organizational learning and change process; because employees are led to believe that their opinions and ideas have neither voice nor are heard, putting the shareholders’ capital on the line as managers or leaders are not making evidence-based decisions due to the failed system they have put in place, so productivity begins to be affected negatively and so does profitability.

How can leaders attempt to change others or fix a problem when they don’t even try to change themselves nor have an idea that problems exist because of the organizational silence they have put in place?

We have been discussing a whole lot in class that systems really drive one’s behavior in the organization, so having that flawed system in place leads to this epidemic of silence that sends wrong signals to employees, causes nonparticipation to growth of the corporation and abstention in the learning process for fear of being punished or facing negative repercussions.

Below please see the most important learning points I took away from this reading:

Reason why this organizational silence takes place in the organization:

  • Managers take constructive feedback personally because they often feel threatened by it, and as a result they avoid it, while also lose the message and attack the credibility of the source “subordinates”, so then employees afraid of being disregarded don’t air out the truth of certain problems or issues to their superiors who deceive themselves by taking this organizational silence as a signal that everything is okay, then they make supposedly good decisions based on facts that don’t even exist, and never get out of that circle “single-loop learning”.

Effects of organizational silence on employees:

  • Lack of variance in informational input: less effective organizational decision making and learning.
  • Lack of critical analysis of ideas and alternatives: less effective organizational decision making and learning.
  • Lack of negative internal feedback: poor error detection and correction which leads to a less effective organizational learning.
  • Employees’ perceived lack of control: low internal motivation, withdrawal, turnover, sabotage.
  • Employees’ cognitive dissonance: anxiety and stress.

Easy fixes to dissipate this organizational silence “disease”

  • Good managers need to encourage disagreement “independent thought” from their subordinates to challenge their ideas, and the best to instill an atmosphere of trust and participation “self-involvement” at all multiple departments characterized by openness- to listen to all sides to search for true opinions versus parroting what is believed others may wish to hear to greatly affect their organizational approach for common good.  

Suggestions:

Managers, to stay in track, need to consider some simple actions as:

  • Maintaining healthy working relationships with subordinates by routinely asking them for participation, because they are ultimately the ones that truly know what is going on down there and asking them for their input is an effective and ethical way to fix the silence which will eventually benefit both the organizational goal and the individuals that appeal to them.
  • Also, rewarding employees that come forward with sensitive or risky information, and creating formal mechanisms through which employees can speak up anonymously if they wish to do so.  
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