What happens in a work environment when people feel like they can’t be themselves and can’t tell the truth? What happens when, on the other hand, people feel comfortable freely speaking their minds?
In 1974, German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann named the phenomenon of not speaking up, the Spiral of Silence. She states that people, fearing rejection or negative consequences, tend to withhold views and opinions that differ from the majority. She states that the effects of remaining silent can cause the minority can become increasingly disenfranchised.
Added to that, in environments where being honest is discouraged, people are hesitant to give each other valuable feedback. Not only does feedback help people alter otherwise unconscious negative attitudes and behavior, the giving and receiving of feedback increases trust on teams.
Wondering where we stand with others, generally results in making assumptions, which typically tend toward the negative. On the other hand, bringing everything into the open leads to understanding, which builds trust among people.
The Torch editorial board has been exploring these questions and ideas in order to create an open environment of trust. What follows are our insights.
The effects from people remaining silent can’t be directly measured. So leaders, business owners and managers typically don’t take conscious steps to create environments where people feel safe expressing themselves.
When people sense that complete honesty is not welcome or might even lead to negative consequences, a climate of fear develops. One way or another this impacts morale, productivity and the bottom-line.
Knowing the cost, we’ve made choice to speak up. For example, one of our meetings began with the web editor expressing his uncertainty about remaining in his position due to the tension in the room during production the night before. He said that he was afraid to ask questions because of the intensity coming from others. We immediately saw that it was necessary to address the source of the tension.
There were a number of contributing factors, one was that the design editor was feeling overwhelmed and was putting others on edge. Another was that a power struggle had developed between him and the editor-in-chief. Even though they had talked this through privately, it wasn’t resolved, so they brought the issue into the open.
They engaged in very direct dialogue, which was uncomfortable for everyone. However, because we could all hear what was being said, we were able to offer insights that helped them see the patterns that were keeping them in conflict. Regardless of how difficult it got, we all stayed with it and kept talking until a shift took place.
We learned from that exchange, and others like it, that if you stick to straight-talk with the intention of making things better, something always shifts. On the other hand, when things are not dealt with and pushed under the rug, people become guarded. The message conveyed to everyone is “it’s not safe being honest around here.” This is a breeding ground for intractable and persistent problems and resentments.
We cleared the air, and the difference between production the night before and the next production was like night and day. Co-operation and friendliness replaced conflict and strongly held positions. So, at our Torch editorial meetings we’ve learned to be radically honest. This can get messy because strong emotions can surface. However, because our underlying intent is to solve our problems and have healthy fulfilling relationships, we do the messy work.
In business environments where honest exchanges aren’t the norm at the management level, the entire culture is affected. People at every other level of the organization know that something needs to be done, but they are powerless; it always starts at the top. So at The Torch, this year at least, the five of us at the editorial level are creating the healthiest culture that we can.
Our process is organic; when the air needs to be cleared, it just becomes obvious. We are in the trust-building business, relearning what we knew as small children: that it’s okay to be flawed. It’s okay to be messy, to cry, get angry and even say and do dumb things. Isn’t that how healthy families operate? There’s no reason why a business can’t be a family.
In environments where people don’t feel safe expressing their ideas and thoughts, a habit of self-censorship develops. Things left unsaid often turn into resentments and come out in the form of gossip and even warnings to others. Over time, this can turn whole environments into tangled dysfunctional webs of repressed speech and feelings.
In many ways our workplaces are microcosms of global situations where fear is everywhere we look; it’s in the media and in people’s conversations, largely from what they hear in the media. This can result feelings overwhelm and helplessness. By consciously building healthy, honest working relationships in our microcosms, trust naturally increases.
Since fear and trust are mutually exclusive, by increasing trust, through self-expression in one area of life, we may be reducing fear in another area. It’s like flexing a muscle. When strength develops, the muscle is more useful in all situations. In the case of truth-telling, we see the sky didn’t fall when we told the truth, so we are more likely to be truthful elsewhere.