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Lessons for bosses who silence their colleagues

March 13, 2015 10:11 IST

Bosses have played a stellar role in stifling the voice of their junior colleagues, notes Shyamal Majumdar. 

A popular Dilbert cartoon shows why many people feel it is pointless to speak out during business meetings.

Sensing that a senior executive is taking a poor decision, Dilbert asks his boss during a meeting: "Shouldn't we tell her?" The boss replies: "Yes. Let's end our careers by challenging a decision that won't change. That's a great idea." 

Dilbert is bang on. Despite protestations to the contrary by HR heads, it's a fact that in most workplaces, more people are keeping quiet and are just going with the flow, thinking that conformity is the best way to advance, or, more importantly, save their jobs. 

So, a common trap that employees fall into is this: they do what they believe their bosses want them to do. They say what they think other people want them to say. 

It is true that most people have a deep set of defence mechanisms that makes them careful in speaking out before their seniors, but bosses have played their part, too, in shutting the voices of their subordinates. 

Here is one example from a recent meeting with a chief executive. The CEO called a couple of his young employees to the meeting just in case he messed up with the numbers. But every time the young men wanted to interject during the conversation, the CEO asked them to shut up, as their job "was to listen to what he says and educate themselves". The two employees gave up trying to speak after a couple of futile attempts. 

Yet another CEO has made it a habit of pre-deciding things before a meeting and only wants to get his decision rubber-stamped by his senior employees. The CEO's argument is that he doesn't have the time to follow the consensus route. 

Such examples have helped build a cottage industry of management books on the power of silence employees should exercise during business meetings.

The authors of such books, which advocate that employees should blend into the background, are uniform in quoting Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln to justify their claims. While Twain said, "The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause," Lincoln said it was "better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt." 

These advocates of the silence-is-the-best-weapon strategy also say that employees should not speak up during meetings for three reasons: it could reveal their lack of expertise; it could have unwanted repercussions for disagreeing; and it could be interpreted by the peer group as trying to hog the spotlight. 

But this is, at best, a twisted argument since in a modern and competitive workplace, silent employees can often mistakenly be viewed as being disengaged, distracted or not confident. 

The responsibility of having an open environment, however, lies with the bosses. For, shutting out voices that might say otherwise can be risky, as critical assumptions remain untested if your managers feel uncomfortable expressing dissent and groups converge quickly on a particular solution.

Then there are many leaders who appear to allow opinions but manipulate the discussion back to their way of thinking. Employees see through this manipulation and stop talking because the effort is viewed as futile. 

A research published by the Harvard Business Review shows that silence can be extremely costly to your employees, as it can exact a high psychological price on individuals, generating feelings of humiliation, anger and resentment. 

India Inc's bosses can also consider the example of former General Motors President Alfred P Sloan Jr.

At an apex committee meeting, everyone around the table expressed their complete agreement on a decision taken by him.

At this point, Sloan said he was postponing further discussion on the matter until the next meeting to give everybody time to develop disagreement and gain some understanding of what the decision was all about. 

What leaders like Sloan figured out is that they need a voice that challenges the status quo, cultivates innovation and inspires those that don't have a voice. So, they encourage their team members to have honest conversations. 

Leaders have to get their people in the habit of speaking up if they want the organisation to escape the spiral of silence.

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