Recently, several members of the Center for Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Research (CWDIR) presented at the ILA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leadership Conference.
Organizational Silence: The Motivation, Impact and Danger of Silence
Organizational Silence: The Motivation, Impact and Danger of Silence
Time for Good Trouble
The late Congressman John Lewis famously encouraged people to get into “good trouble.” As a civil rights icon, Lewis lived a life that demonstrated his understanding that sometimes we must shake things up to bring about change. Congressman Lewis stands out as one of our nation’s most charismatic and courageous leaders. Even in the face of death threats he refused to allow fear of retribution to keep him silent. While few of us will ever face the level of resistance John Lewis encountered, the average person finds fitting in is easier than “rocking the boat.” Peer pressure causes us to shy away from actions that could lead to us being judged or ostracized. This motivation to remain silent holds true throughout communities and in the workplace.
Understanding why people with influence sometimes remain quiet during turbulent times has been in my thoughts a great deal since Spring 2020. As our country grappled with the coronavirus and a long list of systemic inequalities in the areas of voter suppression, health care, education, law enforcement and a myriad of other pressing issues, a common theme emerged. With each passing day, it became glaringly obvious that as a society, we were not being impacted equally. Communities of color, women and those in lower socio-economic groups struggled across the board in every given area from education to healthcare to internet access. Despite endless news stories and press conferences, few issues were resolved. It dawned on me that this was because too many people who carried great influence were silent for fear of retribution.
Dr. Misty Resendez presented an eye-opening workshop on organizational silence and its negative impact on workplace inclusivity during the International Leadership Association’s 2021 Virtual DEI Summit. This was a topic that I had never heard anyone speak so openly about and it truly resonated with me. According to Resendez (2021) organizational silence refers to a collective-level phenomenon of saying or doing very little in response to significant problems that face an organization. She spoke at length about the fears that cause people to remain silent and she challenged participants to think about a time when they kept quiet on an issue at work because they did not feel comfortable sharing their opinion.
As a result of this workshop, I experienced a moment of clarity that has led me to seek a better understanding of the reasons for and the impact of organizational silence. If more people in the workplace and the community were willing to speak up and demand greater inclusivity by causing “good trouble” when they notice the needs of some are being ignored, would we finally make real progress in breaking down the endless list of systemic inequities within our country?
Motivation to Remain Silent
According to Van Dyne , Ang & Botero (2003) there are three distinct motives for silence:
- Acquiescent Silence arises from a lack of interest or passivity. This might be exhibited by people who disengage when an issue has no direct impact on them. These employees are most interested in complying with norms set forth by the organization.
- Defensive Silence is an intentional and active silence designed to protect the employee from possible negative consequence of speaking. An example of this would be minorities that maintain the appearance of compliance while inwardly at odds with the situation.
- Pro-social Silence seeks to encourage a sense of well-being for the group and therefore is motivated by concern for others. An example is the employee who feels it is in the best interest of the organization to remain silent in hopes of bringing about more positive benefits overall
The Impact of Silence
Since employees play a role in the success of their workplace, it is important to keep in mind that their behaviors and attitudes can have an impact on the future of the organization. Some leaders falsely assume that silence means their organization is running smoothly. Unfortunately, no news is not always good news. In organizations where employees are not free to voice their thoughts, this silence may be an indication of low morale and a warning that the work environment is dysfunctional. This type of work culture can lead to a toxic environment, employee dissatisfaction, increased absenteeism, and higher job turnover. Morrison (2014) states that employee silence can damage the culture of the organization as employees do not feel valued, they perceive a lack of control, and they exhibit a discrepancy between outward behavior and internal viewpoints.
The Danger of Silence
Organizational silence can be detrimental to organizations and their employees. Negative consequences of silence include reduced employee health and well-being, low employee morale, ineffective communication and reduced decision-making ability. (InfoWeb24, 2021). Silence damages employee engagement, relationships, deadlines, budgets and culture which ultimately can ruin a business (Resendez, 2021). In order for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts to have a positive impact on an organization, a sense of inclusivity and belonging must be encouraged. This will not happen until employees have a safe place to express themselves authentically.
This is my first installment on organizational silence. During the months ahead, I will continue to search for understanding on the impact and dangers of silence. Have you had personal experiences where you found yourself remaining silent when you wanted to speak out? What motivated you to remain silent? What might have helped you feel more confident with speaking up? I invite you to share your thoughts.
Morrison, E. (2014). Employee Voice and Silence. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior. Vol. 1:173-197. Employee Voice and Silence | Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior (annualreviews.org)
Resendez, M. (2021). The Silence You Give: A Lesson in Workplace Inclusivity. Presented July 2021, International Leadership Association Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Virtual Summit.
Van Dyne, L., Ang, S., & Botero, I. (2003). Conceptualizing Employee Silence and Employee Voice as Multidimensional Constructs. Journal of Management Studies. Conceptualizing Employee Silence and Employee Voice as Multidimensional Constructs* - Dyne - 2003 - Journal of Management Studies - Wiley Online Library
What is Organizational Silence? What is Organizational Silence and what are its causes? - Information Website 24 (infoweb24.com)