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It's too quiet in here

I love watching the candid banter of two people arguing opposing viewpoints back and forth in a meeting. They challenge one another. They work to show each other where they could be wrong. They don't offend one another; they are simply honest. Together, they grow. They definitely do not see eye-to-eye and that, in itself, is a wonderful thing. This dreamland of an organization doesn't always exist. I have personally sat in organizations where I felt silenced. I have worked with individuals that I feared would retaliate if I did not share their perspective. I have kept my mouth shut to stay under the radar because I have experienced firsthand how individuals can be punished for out-of-the-box thinking. I have seen how this can foster a culture of solitude and force a screeching halt to creativity. A quiet organization is not a better organization, it is a fearful one.

I believe that growth takes place when we are most uncomfortable. It happens when we have difficult conversations, are challenged to do something we don't want to or know how to do, and when we receive constructive feedback (and act on it!). I can respect when a Leader has to make a tough decision and move forward at a swift pace. I can acknowledge that not everything needs to be challenged, but it should be welcomed. How can we improve if we do not hear differing viewpoints? How can we challenge the status quo if we don't encourage our employees to speak up? How can we be considered a team if the ideas in only one head are being brought to the table? 

I see it all the time: A high level individual makes a statement and the face of a less experienced professional turns beat red as they say, "I respectfully disagree.". It's what happens next that is crucial: Does the Manager respond, "Ok, why?" or "I didn't ask you for your opinion."? Is this a one-off situation or recurring behavior of the Manager? I chalk the latter response up to insecurity, fear that the individual might be proven wrong in front of other Leadership and subordinates. 

In any environment, the way the group acts is learned behavior. Has someone been removed from a position for speaking up? Have we discussed a difficult topic and its solution together as a team? Are we verbally asked what our opinions are and encouraged to speak up? These types of things matter, especially if you want to create a culture of openness and embrace diversity of thought. So, what are some ways that we can work to address the struggle of silence? 

1. Be respectful - Even if you hate their idea, you can still broach the topic of giving feedback in a respectful manner. "That's a very interesting viewpoint, John. I would definitely like to expand on this if that's alright with the team.

2. Provide both positive and constructive feedback on the idea - Telling someone their idea is shit will only stop them from listening to anything else you have to say. If they truly are insecure in their role, then you will need to address them delicately. "Here's what I like about your idea ...". "My concerns are ...".

3. Provide an alternative suggestion - If you have an idea, state it. Don't just tell them there is a problem with their idea, bring a potential solution to the table. "What if we took your idea, John, and modified it to add these elements. This could address xyz concerns while still achieving the ultimate goal of increasing sales." This allows you to bring in an opposing viewpoint and gather feedback from other individuals in the room.

4. Ask your colleague - If there is an expert amongst the group, you can easily state that understanding their position would be valuable to the discussion. "Susie has a lot of experience in XYZ topic, I'd love to hear her professional opinion on this."

5. Accept the response - If the Manager thanks you for your opinion and says that they are moving forward with their original idea, I would encourage you to accept his/her response (unless something immoral/illegal is taking place, in which case you need to take other, more drastic measures).

You are not going to change the manager or organizational culture on the first day you attempt to create a more open environment. What could happen is you could create a spark in others to build the confidence they need to speak up themselves. I can't guarantee there won't be repercussions for speaking up even in this manner. I can't tell you that you will be heard. You have to first understand your organization and the people/personalities you are dealing with. You have to know yourself and how the message you are communicating is going to be delivered, or even come across to the audience. You have to trust that speaking up is the right thing to do in order to bring about change. 

If you enjoy my blog, please consider purchasing a children's book to give back to working moms: A Stay-at-Home Dad?