Once upon a time there was a rug merchant who saw that his most beautiful carpet had a large bump in its center. He stepped on the bump to flatten it out—and succeeded. But the bump reappeared in a new spot not far away. He jumped on the bump again, and it disappeared—for a moment, until it emerged once more in a new place. Again and again he jumped, scuffing and mangling the rug in his frustration, until finally he lifted one corner of the carpet and an angry snake slithered out.
I love this story, which I found in a book by systems guru Peter Senge, because it leaves a vivid image of the problem created by failure to raise and address conflict at work—it just becomes the snake under the rug.
A couple of years ago the Harvard Business Review published a piece of research about the price of silence during organizational or interpersonal problems at work. In Is Silence Killing Your Company, authors Leslie Perlow and Stephanie Williams explore the reasons for and the results of employees’ decision to keep silent instead of questioning or confronting a problem.
They suggested there are several reasons people hold their tongues: It’s better, as the old adage goes, to be quiet and thought a fool than to talk and be known as one. People sometimes keep quiet to avoid embarrassment or follow ingrained rules of etiquette. And organizations send a message—intentionally or unintentionally, formally or informally—that it’s best to fall in line and doing so will preserve job security. And even as adults, we experience the need to conform, to feel part of the group, and the fear that raising difficult issues will marginalize or disenfranchise us. Finally, we sometimes hold our tongue in the short-sighted belief that it’ll help get a task done more efficiently.
But, the authors concluded from their research, it turns out that patterns of silence in an organization, whether due to the workplace culture or an employee’s own background, are “extremely costly to both the firm and the individual.” They found this to be true for organizations ranging in size from small businesses to Fortune 500 corporations and government agencies. “Silence,” they said, “starts when we choose not to confront a difference.” And keeping quiet doesn’t necessarily preserve the relationship or contribute to getting work done effectively or efficiently. Failing to raise concerns, confront conflict or talk about differences in organizations can—and often does—lead to these problems:
- There’s an increase in “behind closed doors” anger, lament or plotting, as we take their concerns to colleagues they trust. We don’t initially take a concern behind closed doors with ill intent. But we do want to be heard, to be told our concerns are reasonable, and we’ll turn to co-workers we consider allies in such instances. While it’s natural, it’s also a trap for the individual and the organization.
- There’s an increase in anxiety, anger and resentment, since silence doesn’t erase a difference but instead sends it underground, like the snake under the rug. It just moves around, sometimes growing larger and larger. If we really care about something, it’s pretty hard to shrug it off and pretend it’s not bothering us.
- Insecurity grows. The authors argue that when we feel defensive and self-protective, we become increasingly more fearful of speaking up. This cycle leads to more silence and thus more insecurity, in what they call a “spiral of silence.”
- Relationships are damaged, sometimes badly so. Real concerns about a colleague’s behavior or decisions don’t go away when we stifle them. The psychological distance we create from our silence can and often does do more damage to the relationship in the long run than having the initial difficult conversation could ever have.
- Creativity and effective decision making decline. I often say that the best organizations aren’t ones without conflict, they’re the ones that know how to work effectively with conflict. Difference, well managed, leads to greater creativity and better decisions. Ultimately, the work environment suffers, both in terms of morale, physical health, employee retention, and quality decision-making.
So how do we let the snake out from under the rug? How do we keep ourselves and our organizations safe and well functioning once the snake’s loose? In my next column for the Monadnock Ledger, I’ll talk about how to break the spiral of silence, when it’s best to speak up, and how to do it effectively.
This article was originally published in my regular column for The Monadnock Ledger.