Organisational silence – why speaking up is hard to do

When you do speak out, you are seen as a problem, as if the problem is only there because you speak about it”.

I read a blog last week written by Sara Ahmed. I shared it on twitter using the quote above which resonated with experiences I’ve had over the years.  That quote has been picked up and shared so many times and by such a broad group; I’m assuming that it connected, landed, shouted at, moved something in the heart of those who read it.

Sara’s blog is a wonderful piece of writing; a tough read about her experience of challenging sexual harassment. Essential reading for all HR practitioners I would think.   I drew many insights reading her blog, insights for all organisations.  One in particular has made me step back. And think. Really think.

Before I move to that; the stories I hear, keep hearing, my own experiences – what matters most to most of us at work is how we are seen, heard, acknowledged.  What takes the most energy at work is our relationships when they “go wrong”.  In particular the relationship we have with our manager and/or those with hierarchical power.  From the workers at the front line through to the Board and what they offer to their CEO/Executive Teams relationships matter.

I’ve had a few weeks where I keep hearing something. The same thing.  I’m not searching for it, but I keep hearing it.  “She is heard as complaining. When she is heard as complaining she is not heard”. (Sara Ahmed).

That something is people talking about conversations they’ve had with their bosses. I’ve heard examples of discounting and disrespecting on a scale that never fails to be saddening.  A person who’s gone to their boss with an excessive workload  and saying they can’t do everything, and just being asked “how can we hit our targets”. No offer of help. Another being shut down from sharing data by a lie and when the lie is proven, it is brushed under the carpet.  No need to make a fuss. Another being shamed/embarrassed by a boss who has decided to raise an issue in public and the shock of “why did they do that” paralyses.  There’s plenty more.

Each one of these experiencing disrespect, discount, override, are senior managers who have significant responsibilities.  They ask for help and don’t get it. They are put down; know they are dealing with mendacity – what happens?

It silences them.  

Not completely.  And yet – once we’ve been shut down, we will be more careful. We may not make a conscious choice to filter what we say, but we will.  Our truth is silenced.  We don’t trust.

Back to Sara’s insights.

At work, sometimes, at some point,  action is taken to remove someone who is damaging others – often when the damage to the organisations’ reputation will become public.  Action is swift – perhaps after long periods of inaction or something has become too obvious to discount; it can no longer be brushed under the carpet.  And here’s my realisation; the silence of the compromise agreement sweetened with a confidentiality clause – it doesn’t remove the problem.    Everyone knows, but no-one knows. Shameful organisational secret. We can’t talk about it.  The damage containment, it contains the damaged. (Sara again).  If anyone has ever wondered what is really meant by systemic thinking; this is such a powerful example.

Questions this raises for me:

  • Could leaders take one specific action to consider the confidentiality clause, and think, think – whether the good intention ultimately creates the silence that means that speaking out is seen as creating the problem?  What could be a different way?
  • How can we infuse our leadership and management ideology with the thought that hierarchy does not equate to inequality. Seniority does not mean ownership or give permission to utilise people as a pawn in a game of matching wits, climbing the career pole for furthering self-interest.
  • How by our own behaviour can anyone working in the people space (that’s all of us right?)  lead on creating the conditions that enable the person naming a problem not to become the problem.

I don’t have answers.  Perhaps collectively however if we ask ourselves questions and keep asking, then others will be encouraged to ask questions and then raising problems will not be the problem.












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