I have talked about speaking up in business several times. Conversely I have also cited the American humorist Will Rogers on several occasions for his immortal line “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” Unfortunately while I may cite Will Rogers, I rarely follow his advice as I have created issues far more often by speaking up than I have by remaining quiet. You would think I would learn. I think those of you who know me are not surprised that I haven’t.
I’ll paraphrase another American comedian Ron Wood, and say that while I may have the right to remain silent, I rarely seem to have the ability to remain silent. But I’ll continue to work on it.
In business for the greater part we are all knowledge workers. That means that we provide and deliver our value to the organization in the form of our abilities to recognize and process information in the pursuit of the organization’s goals. Equally important is what is done with the information once it has been processed. Having information and not communicating it in an organization is almost as useless as not having the information at all. What good is having a solution if you don’t communicate it? So, our value is not just the knowledge we have but also our desire and ability to communicate to and with others.
Not everyone thinks, or processes information the same way. This is actually a very good thing for all involved.
Unless you are my wife. It seems to significantly frustrate her that I think so differently from her. She doesn’t understand how I can be so wrong so often when it comes to communicating with her. I guess I will continue to work on that too.
A healthy organization should have a healthy diversity of input from the team members. There should be an ongoing dialog on almost all topics as new issues are worked and old ones revisited for potential improvements. As the speed of business continues to increase and the time and distance associated with business decrease, it is probably safe to say that the conditions that were in place when a decision was made have changed.
The point here is that an ongoing dialog on a wide range of topics is important to the health and success of any team. Argument and examination by their very nature end up generating stronger solutions through addressing potential weaknesses to proposed solutions. But how far can or should a leader allow this dialog to go? When does continued discussion actually start to become dissension in the ranks?
Depending on the commitment of the team members and the trust of the team leader, I think the simple answer here is that ongoing discussion, even regarding previously “closed” topics should never be viewed as dissension. The reason is simple.
If you silence a differing opinion on one topic, you may have unknowingly also silenced that opinion on any of several other topics. No one likes to be told to shut up. Will Rogers was talking about our own self control, not the imposed control of others. If one is told to be quiet often enough on certain topics, they may of their own volition start to extend their reticence to other unintentional topics. And since no one is right all the time, there may in fact come a time when there will be a need for the knowledge that the differing opinion represents to generate the issue solution, and it may not be forthcoming.
A healthy organization has a strong amount of dialog going on between the members themselves and between the members and the leader. As ideas are generated and alternatives considered the discourse should increase. This again points out the difficult transition that would be leaders must make: that of moving from the position of generating and defending ideas to one of encouraging and acting on the ideas of others.
Most managers attain their position because they were able to generate and defend good solutions to multiple issues. This engenders a type behavior. However once they are in a leadership role it is no longer the sole behavior that they must demonstrate. Their new role must evolve into a utilization and growth of others to generate and defend good solutions. Hence the needs for the ongoing give and take between the leader and the team members.
But what happens if the manager doesn’t change? What becomes of the team dynamic if the person who was rewarded for generating good ideas continues to insist on generating all the good ideas?
The first indication that this managerial centralization of solution ideas is occurring is when the team communication starts to become reduced. Instead of a continuous stream of new proposals and iterations on older issues, there is less and less that is put forth. If the manager is going to generate the solution anyway, why not remain silent and wait for it.
As I noted earlier, no one likes to be told to be quiet. Whether it is directly in the form of publicly shooting down the proposals, or tacitly in the form of quietly just disregarding their input, no one likes to see or feel that their intellectual work is being disregarded, or continuously superseded by someone else intellectual work. If it happens often enough, team members will have a tendency to just shut down. They may work out the issues, but they just won’t bring forth the proposals and solutions if they don’t feel they will at least be honestly analyzed for function and purpose.
They in effect go silent and just wait to be told what to do. Either that or they have a tendency to leave for other organizations.
I’ve discussed the difference between compliance and commitment in the past. Commitment comes from team members feeling that their input and ideas are valued. That doesn’t mean that their ideas must always be selected. It means that they should be discussed. Rarely is an individual’s entire proposal invalidated. There are always pieces of it that can and should be incorporated into the final solution.
As leaders, the discussion and selection process associated with functional strategies and solution implementation is delicate. Selecting and supporting the stronger aspects of the team’s work while acknowledging and remanding back the less applicable aspects for further work can be a tightrope like balance. Be too harsh a critic and risk alienating the team. Not be demanding enough and risk allowing less than optimal ideas and work into the process.
When faced with this type of conundrum it is easy to see why the default response may be to drive harder. It is also easier now to see why so many organizations seem to be getting quieter. If the manager believes that the best person to rely on is themselves, then why does there need to be a dialog.
Issue identification, goal and strategy setting, and problem resolution should not be quiet activities. They are the basis of all business progress. The noted past conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Erich Leinsdorf once said when discussing the music that he believed in friction and that without it there could be no progress.
Here was a leader (orchestra conductor) who had to lead as many as one hundred and twenty different team members (musicians), each with an instrument with a discrete voice, in the playing of some of the most complex symphonies in history. Each musician needed to play and contribute, but within the structure set by the conductor in the creation of the end product. In his time that organization was credited with some of its finest performances.
It is often thought that the conductor simply tells the musicians what to play and how to play it. Leinsdorf is credited with changing the process so that when he wanted something, he didn’t just demand it. He asked for it, and explained why he wanted it. The results and the performance reviews spoke to the success of his approach.
As business moves more and more to virtual types of office arrangements, and meetings become more like phone calls, the office continues to become a quieter and quieter environment. Managers can mistakenly interpret this phenomenon as the tacit agreement with their plans and policies. I think in most instances it is not.
I think the new office arrangements and business dynamics have only served to exacerbate some of these management tendencies. Regardless, there seems to be a large number of organizations that like in the old western movies, it can be said that things are quiet, almost too quiet. And the sound that silence makes should speak volumes as to where the ideas and solutions (as well as the future leaders) are, or in most cases are not coming from.