Voice and Silence in Orgs LO27456

From: Fred Nickols (nickols@att.net)
Date: 10/24/01

Responding to Emery Brant in LO27443 --

Emery Brant issues a call for papers for a special issue of the Journal of
Management Studies. The topic is "Speaking Up, Remaining Silent: The
Dynamics of Voice and Silence in Organizations."

I'll not be submitting a paper but I couldn't pass up responding to the
questions in Emery's post.

> We encourage a broad range of papers related to silence
> and voice in organizations. We especially encourage papers
> that focus on silence within particular industries or
> silence around particular issues. Although not inclusive,
> the following questions typify issues that would be
> appropriate for the special issue:

Well, that certainly struck a chord with me. I've spoken up when asked
and remained silent when asked to speak up. I've remained silent when I
should have spoken up and I've spoken up when I should have remained
silent. I've done so out of brazenness, fear, concern, responsiveness, a
sense of responsibility and an occasional decision to be more or less
irresponsible (as it "It ain't my ox getting gored"). I especially like
the questions below so I'll respond to those and leave the paper writing
to other folks.

> What roles do fear and courage play in decisions to speak up
> or remain silent?

I think those roles vary from situation to situation. In some, one or the
other is a strong factor and in other situations neither is much of a
factor. It depends on what's at stake for the person in question and that
person's assessment of the situation and the risks. On occasion, I've not
spoken up not because I was afraid but because the occasion was a request
to speak up and I didn't attach much credibility to the requestor's
request. On other occasions, I've spoken up because I wanted to be heard,
not because I had anything particularly important and certainly not risky
to say (although I've discovered to my chagrin that spontaneity carries
risks all its own). I'm not sure these two fear and courage come into
play separately. For the most part, I'm inclined to think that they come
into play as offsetting forces (as in Kurt Lewin's force-field theory) in
situations in which risk is involved. Whether the scale is tipped by
courage or fear is situational and individual.

> What roles do norms and taboos play in decisions to voice
> concerns?

That, too, varies. In some organizations, it's almost de rigeur for a
senior exec to solicit input and, at the same time, everyone knows better
than to respond in any serious way. Why? Because the request isn't
really a request for input that will actually influence any course of
events; instead, it's a ploy in a benighted change management strategy.
Someone told the execs that, as part of change management, they ought to
solicit input. Execs who need to be told that are going to (a) go out and
solicit it and (b) completely ignore it. So, no one really pays any
attention. That's a norm in some place. In other places I've been, the
distinction between norm and taboo isn't clearly drawn. In some
companies, for example, the first order of business in relation to any
decision or issue is to answer the question, "Whose call is it?" Only
after that's been answered, can discussion proceed. Woe unto anyone who
volunteers an opinion on any weighty matter before it's been decided who
gets to make the call. So, is that a norm or a taboo? I think it's both.

> What do organizations need to do to create environments
> where people feel that they can safely speak up?

Anyone who knows me can predict my answer to this question: Nothing. In
my view, organization don't do anything, people do. So, at the very
least, I would reword the question; perhaps to something like: "What can
executives and managers do to create environments where people feel that
they can safely speak up?" Having said that, I'm more inclined to
question the question. What problem is solved by having people feel that
they can safely speak up? If I go back to the beginning of this post, I
surmise that people aren't pointing out flaws in courses of action, aren't
contributing their best ideas, aren't finking on illegal activities and so
on. Speaking out in any of these situations might or might not be seen as
risky. If it is seen as risky (and let's assume that it is), why on earth
would you encourage anyone to take chances? That, it seems to me, is a
call best left to each individual. If it's not risky, then you're dealing
with faulty perceptions and some kind of communications or propaganda
program is required to clear them up. The bottom line here is probably
the age-old advice against shooting the messenger. To the extent that
people are penalized and punished for speaking up, the situation will be
seen as having risk. Whether or not the individual will then speak up
comes back to the balance of forces between courage and fear (which is
probably a balance between various aspects of one's conscience).

> What kinds of information are most likely to be lost to
> organizations because of silence?

Lots and lots and lots. Good ideas, valuable suggestions, insights that
could save a ton of grief and cost, a sense of where people are on a
particular issue or initiative. On and on the possibilities go. You name
it and it can be lost owing to silence or fear.

> In what ways might silence and the withholding of information
> be organizationally functional? How can organizations strike
> a balance between too much and too little discussion of potential
> or real problems?

This question goes to the old security issue of "need to know." Clearly,
there are problems and issues that no one wants broadcast about the
organization. Just as clearly, that kind of security-mindedness can get
overdone to the point of choking off the flow of information to people who
really do need it. On my part, I typically operate on the assumption
that, unless it's clearly indicated by the situation, it's better to share
openly than to control communications. I know others who operate in
exactly the opposite fashion; they won't share anything unless there's a
proven need to do so. Not speaking up or remaining silent can serve to
protect the company or individuals. Not blowing the whistle on a
particular problem can enable a strategy of getting it resolved before it
gets detected by others a face saving and a cost saving maneuver. In the
last analysis, I think it boils down to judgment.

> What are the long-term consequences of silence for both individuals
> and organizations?

Well, if it's too widespread and too deeply ingrained, sooner or later the
organization will be in trouble because necessary information simply isn't
making its way about. If individuals are in an environment where they
genuinely and seriously fear speaking up, sooner or later they'll leave.
That, too, costs the organization. On balance, though, I doubt it costs
most organizations or most individuals much of anything. People come and
go. Organizations aren't repressive; managers are. You work for one boss
who doesn't want to hear much of anything from anyone and he or she will
likely be gone before long. So, you wait 'em out. Along comes another
manager and the atmosphere changes. Ideas are freely exchanged and
comments previously seen as criticism because viewed as valuable insights.
I think there's too much change going on in most companies for a
repressive culture to stay in place long enough to do any real damage.

> How does the propensity to speak openly and honestly about organizational
> issues vary across cultures?

I have no idea although I suspect it varies considerably. I think this
question has to be answered on a culture by culture basis and only then
can a cross-cultural comparison be performed.

Thanks for a wonderfully provocative set of questions.


Fred Nickols
The Distance Consulting Company
"Assistance at A Distance"
(609) 490-0095


Fred Nickols <nickols@att.net>

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