The Cloak of Silence: Why Your Employees Won’t Communicate

The Cloak of Silence-Why Your Employees Won't Communicate

There are all of these articles about communication and engagement. I have contributed my thoughts in some of them. They are all useful in some regard if you want to get to the bottom of your engagement and communication issues. Except, we would have to include the one nuisance variable that most leaders and companies won’t cop to and that is: The cloak of silence.

We are working and living in the age of knowledge. We have more data points than we can use and have more information at our finger tips than previous generations. If given a chance, most leaders will cite wanting to understand their employees better. They want to understand things like motivations, propensity to leave, career aspirations etc.

What makes this problematic is leaders and companies want to know these things, but are often times not willing to ingest and digest the answers. Often times, when the answer they receive is unfavorable for them or the company – they react. The reaction is negative and usually sets such a tone that any further or future communication like it will be non-existent, censored and/or stifled.

Around the time of the 9/11 attacks here in NY the MTA came out with this whole campaign that said: ” If you see something, say something.” Many businesses latched onto this saying and started using it as a way to appear as though employees should feel free to share the things they are noticing and should feel safe to do so without fearing retaliation. There are some good eggs that truly stand by having an open, honest and communicative culture.

Others still, prefer a cloak of silence. They prefer for employees to be seen and not heard. These are companies that like when people speak up to praise the organization and its leaders. Companies that prefer a cloak of silence literally squash and black list anyone who dreams of raising a concern or anything deemed unfavorable for the company.

Let us examine through this example:

I worked for a company in a previous life that loved to hold town halls. If you know anything about town halls you know that they are meant to be open forums where people can come to have their ideas and concerns heard by those in power. The goal is that healthy debate and conversation is brought to the table by the constituents and those in power so that amicable solutions can be implemented.

When we had town halls, they spent weeks communicating the importance of our participation. It was even shared that no question was “dumb” or “irrelevant”. Yet, the first town hall I attended at this company was quieter than a church during Sermon. The CHRO spent an hour speaking about projects, opportunities, our organizational scorecard and then asked for questions. One of my co-workers raised her hand and if looks could kill she would have been dead. She continued to ask her question about adding additional members to our team, because of the excessive workload. Her question was answered abruptly and dismissed.

After the town hall, some of my more tenured co-workers spoke among themselves about how this employee who spoke up never learns her lesson. As in, she should have remained quiet instead, because clearly her question was not welcomed.

Every subsequent meeting and town hall was marred by a cloak of silence. We all knew that it wasn’t worth our time to ask questions or raise issues in these meetings despite what leadership was saying. They didn’t really want to know. It was all about faking their way to engagement and open communication – except they were doing a really poor job at it.

If you have noticed the same in your company here are some tips for building trust and getting your employees to communicate with you again:

1) Don’t ask questions, if you don’t want the answers. What people experience in their jobs day-to-day is very real. Don’t ask them to lie to you so your feelings aren’t hurt. Your employees have a right to not work in fear and you deserve to hear the truth so you can improve.

2) If delivery of certain messages are your concern, set a few ground rules for your town halls and meetings. Let’s be honest, sometimes intention doesn’t meet delivery at the finish line when it comes to communication. Having a few ground rules for meetings and town halls will help to set the tone. Be sure that your employees know you will abide by them as well.

3) When they speak, you listen and then take action. What is the point of having all of these data points, if you are going to simply hoard them – only to do nothing with it. When your employees speak up it’s an act of bravery on their part. The way they know that you have heard them is by acknowledging what was said and taking action.

Communicating doesn’t have to be difficult. Once you get over your own fears and needs to control what and how your employees say something – it will be a smoother ride for both parties.