In 1964, Paul Simon wrote The Sound of Silence. In 2015, Disturbed created a cover of The Sound of Silence for a new audience. Although the lyrics remain the same, the images they conjure vary, even though some correlation remains. The sound of silence can become a complete culture.
I once worked with a company with its own culture of silence. These lyrics from the "Sound of Silence" especially applied to this company:
...in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking.
People hearing without listening.
People writing songs that voices never share.
No-one dare disturb the sound of silence.
The songs written and never shared included ideas to improve efficiency, productivity, maintain quality and consistency, and improve morale. People stopped sharing. The culture demonstrated itself in these ways:
- Meetings where no-one listened
- Feedback ignored, dismissed, or rebutted
- Claims that people who were let go knew they had a problem, however, none of them saw it coming
- No-one allowed to discuss layoffs or ask questions
- People who had been laid off became taboo subjects – management never mentioned them and people who loved them and appreciated their work felt ostracized for mentioning them
- People in management not permitted to talk to people who had been let go
- People with wonderful ideas stopped sharing
- Claimed transparency, but few people felt informed
- Decisions made in isolation and then revisited over and over again – never coming to a final decision, however, people in trouble for not following the expectation
- Little to no documentation
- Requests for changes and updates ignored
- People in public meetings claiming “so and so is looking into it” and decisions never shared
- Result: culture of fear, culture of silence
I wanted to impress upon them the truth of these lyrics:
Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you.
Take my arms that I might reach you.
The biggest challenge in this organization was the lack of desire for true change. The people who could implement true and effective changes gave it lip-service, but refused to give much consideration to the culture.
Some of my words were heard before my time with them ended, however, and a few things were beginning to change.
- Instead of a phone call at the end of the work day dismissing people, individuals being let go were given two weeks’ notice
- People who were let go received some public praise for their efforts
- Change requests from people "on the front line" were heard and implemented more quickly - at least in one or two areas
Instead of screams echoing in a culture of silence, how can you fight any culture of silence in which you find yourself? Even though I focus on organizations, I invite you to consider all of these environments and their effects on each other and on you. How can you affect them?
- Is your home showing a culture of silence?
- Is your workplace showing a culture of silence?
- Is your neighborhood demonstrating a culture of silence?
How can you change that?
In my case, I have worked hard to share the things that I don’t want to share.
At home, I share with my kids the things that embarrass me about my behavior and things I want to change.
With work, I share with my clients the things they don’t want to hear, but that will help them.
I also share as many positives as possible. I believe in blunt compliments and kind correction.
A culture solely of criticism or embarrassment creates a different culture of silence in which people are afraid to share fearing they may only show negatives.
Consciously create a culture where mistakes are allowed, feedback is welcomed, changes are made, and recognition is plentiful. Together, let’s fight our cultures of silence.
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