Want Your Employees to Speak Up? You Need to Give Them a Reason!

In a short piece titled The Cost of Neutral, writer Seth Godin posits that when a person is silent but had something important to say, his act is not neutral but actually takes away value.

Godin writes, “If you come to my brainstorming meeting and say nothing, it would have been better if you hadn’t come at all.”

This is an intriguing thought, and I get what Godin is saying. But being the cynic that I am, I think, “Well, maybe Godin is a swell boss who encourages his employees to speak up and shows real interest in and appreciation for their opinions. But I know plenty of bosses who suck at this, and keeping quiet is their employees’ main means of survival.”

Is silence a learned trait in the workplace?

Godin adds: “If you go to work and do what you’re told, you’re not being negative, certainly, but the lack of initiative you demonstrate (which, alas, you were trained not to demonstrate) costs us all …”

OK, that’s good. Godin is admitting that perhaps silence is a learned trait, which implies that he understands some of the dynamics at play within organizations. He still wants to make his point about the cost of the silence, however, and while I’m not inclined to disagree with him, I also want to say, “Hey, Seth, I hear what you’re saying, but tell that shit to leadership, okay? Don’t come looking over here.”

That’s because, you see, leadership sets the tone for effective collaboration and communication. Sure, there are individuals who might be reticent with their opinions because of an unreasonable fear of the consequences, apathy, or even an ignoble desire to “information hoard,” and I suppose this post could be for them.

But as a general manifesto for the working person I say, uh huh. It just depends. If opening your mouth is the surest way to get your wrist slapped (or worse), I say keep it shut and save your breathe and your energy for a future employer who’ll truly value what you have to share.

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Leadership gets the team it deserves

Godin writes, “It’s tempting to sit quietly, take notes and comply, rationalizing that at least you’re not doing anything negative. But the opportunity cost your newly lean, highly leveraged organization faces is significant.

Again, I agree. But there are instances where the leadership gets the team it deserves. Hey leadership, if you create an environment where people are afraid to speak, then um … they’re going to be afraid to speak.

The bottom line is, while I applaud Godin’s philosophy and personally think it’s more interesting to engage than not, I recognize that sometimes it’s just not worth the trouble.

In these cases, I say to heck with the “cost” of neutral and instead will happily agree with my elders that “silence is golden.”

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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2 Comments on “Want Your Employees to Speak Up? You Need to Give Them a Reason!

  1. I’m with you 100% on this one Crystal. I can totally relate to the environments where sharing is daring.

    While my introverted tendencies make it more likely that I will listen more than speak in a group brainstorming session, it is not because I don’t have ideas to share. Rather, it is because the abstract “what if” thoughts brewing in my head would probably disrupt the “yes-people” flow in certain circumstances. Not that I won’t or don’t express dissenting points of view or inject alternative options, but many times it makes more sense to absorb and process first, then formulate and present cogent thoughts in a less chaotic setting.

    At one workplace (while working in HR) I had an IT person working on something in my office so I took advantage of the opportunity to do a mini cultural survey with him (we had a good rapport already). Anyway, he’d worked there a while (it was a place with high turnover, especially in IT) so I was curious what made HIM stay. He said he just keeps his head down and does what he’s told.

    Since that is the complete opposite of my behavior I asked if that was hard to do or if it bothered him at all. He said sometimes, but not as hard as getting reemed by the volatile department head (BTW main reason for high turnover). So, yes, self-preservation is a huge motivator for many people.

    I’ve personally been in meetings that were so aggravating, pointless and mind-numbing that sitting quietly taking notes, doodling, making a grocery list or playing tic-tac-toe was the only way to keep from blurting out something that probably needed to be said, but would have been a career-limiting move. (May a have a few scars from trying that out too!)

    After all the people that rock the boat, stir the pot, disrupt the status quo, blow the whistle or question authority are the first to be thrown under the bus in some corporate cultures. Accusations of being negative (realistic), cynical (pragmatic), not a team player (independent thinker) and so on put people in precarious positions. Being right doesn’t always mean being treated right, unfortunately.

    Anyway, great analysis of some unspoken realities of workplace politics, egos, dysfunction and less-than-stellar leadership.

    ~KB TalentTalks

    1. Hello KB, and thanks for your comments, which just confirms it–more courageous leadership (and I’m not talking about the line staff) is desperately needed in the workplace. We shouldn’t be so afraid of somebody else’s great idea and/or so intolerant of someone else’s not-so-great idea. No leader knows everything.

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