Destructive Silences

How what is not said can harm an organization’s performance.

What if Henry kept information to himself that he knew his colleagues needed to make a better decision? And what if the company gradually made increasingly poorer decisions that over time led to a reduction in profitability because fewer and fewer people had the information they needed? This isn’t to say Henry’s actions alone weakened the company, but rather that Henry, taking a cue from his colleagues who frequently do the very same thing, preferred to remain silent instead of speaking up.

This is just one example of a harmful silence. A destructive silence is one that reduces trust, impairs communication, and has the potential to cause harm in a relationship or network of relationships. Unfortunately, too many workplaces are full of destructive silences.

Henry committed a harmful omission—his silence was not sharing the information he knew. When his colleagues find out Henry had information he didn’t share, they will think less highly of Henry and will be less likely to share information with him. From the company’s point of view, overall efficiency and productivity will decrease. Innovation and the ability to respond and adapt to changing market conditions will be severely hampered.

How to Break the Cycle

To help break this kind of silence, here are some things leaders throughout the entire organization can do:

  • Intentionally seek our information from all stakeholders, even the quiet and difficult to reach ones. Keep making genuine efforts to get input from a variety of stakeholders.
  • Publicly acknowledge the input you got from others and how you weighed that information in your decision-making process. Clearly explain your decision-making process and communicate the concerns raised by colleagues. You don’t need to always name the colleague, but you do need to articulate his or her objections and relay those objections to the group. You also need to explain why you proceed despite those concerns. If you changed plans to take into consideration the feedback, explain how the observations improved the strategy.
  • Keep in mind that employee feedback is not something to be scribbled on a piece of paper, shoved into a box, and left to collect dust. All feedback has to be taken seriously and action taken when appropriate. Leaders and managers throughout the organization need to make serious and visible efforts to incorporate their colleagues’ feedback into workflow, processes, design, and decisions.
  • Communicate clearly and frequently how the company is doing, what obstacles it faces, and actively seek suggestions and collaboration to surpass those challenges.
  • Foster and reinforce a culture of addressing hiccups and issues before they become problems and calamities. Employees who rectify minor concerns before they get out of hand need to be acknowledged and praised. People need to be encouraged to be proactive instead of reactive. Key components of having a proactive culture are: a culture of personal responsibility, a sense of ownership in the company and its future, recognition for outstanding work, and a sense of “we-ness” instead of “me-ness.” A corporate culture that fosters teamwork between departments and sets organizational goals in addition to departmental goals develops into a cohesive whole, and thus, strengthens a sense of “we.” An organization that focuses exclusively on individual and departmental goals discourages cooperation between teams and departments and encourages overly individualistic behaviors, often to the detriment of the company.

Key to all of these proposed solutions is the development of a culture of honest communication based on trust and informed decision-making. Employees need self-confidence and faith in management to raise problems as they arise instead of allowing things to fester. Management and leaders in the organization need to have robust levels of self-esteem to handle criticism and take appropriate action. Communication becomes a virtuous cycle: The more management encourages feedback and acts on it, the more employees are inclined to share.

Silence can cripple an organization as it reduces trust and impedes communication. Even when staff members follow procedures and things appear to be done in an orderly fashion, there still can be many things that need to be said but aren’t. It takes courage to ensure that what needs to be said is, in fact, said. Ensure that your employees have the support they need to break the silence.

Renée Gendron, MA, founded Vitae Dynamics Inc. to transform workplaces and economic ecosystems into healthier, better adapted to economic conditions, and more respectful environments. Gendron extends tailored and specialized bilingual training on leadership, conflict resolution, and communication. She also provides mediation and research services. Gendron holds a Master’s degree in social sciences and certificates in alternative dispute resolution and conflict resolution. Her research has been presented at many conferences and is published in peer-reviewed academic journals. Gendron can be reached at @vitaedynamics or Her Website is


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