Want Your Employees to Speak Up? You Need to Give Them a Reason!

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Jul 17, 2013

In a short piece titled The Cost of Neutral, writer Seth Godin posits that when a person is silent but had something important to say, his act is not neutral but actually takes away value.

Godin writes, “If you come to my brainstorming meeting and say nothing, it would have been better if you hadn’t come at all.”

This is an intriguing thought, and I get what Godin is saying. But being the cynic that I am, I think, “Well, maybe Godin is a swell boss who encourages his employees to speak up and shows real interest in and appreciation for their opinions. But I know plenty of bosses who suck at this, and keeping quiet is their employees’ main means of survival.”

Is silence a learned trait in the workplace?

Godin adds: “If you go to work and do what you’re told, you’re not being negative, certainly, but the lack of initiative you demonstrate (which, alas, you were trained not to demonstrate) costs us all …”

OK, that’s good. Godin is admitting that perhaps silence is a learned trait, which implies that he understands some of the dynamics at play within organizations. He still wants to make his point about the cost of the silence, however, and while I’m not inclined to disagree with him, I also want to say, “Hey, Seth, I hear what you’re saying, but tell that shit to leadership, okay? Don’t come looking over here.”

That’s because, you see, leadership sets the tone for effective collaboration and communication. Sure, there are individuals who might be reticent with their opinions because of an unreasonable fear of the consequences, apathy, or even an ignoble desire to “information hoard,” and I suppose this post could be for them.

But as a general manifesto for the working person I say, uh huh. It just depends. If opening your mouth is the surest way to get your wrist slapped (or worse), I say keep it shut and save your breathe and your energy for a future employer who’ll truly value what you have to share.

Leadership gets the team it deserves

Godin writes, “It’s tempting to sit quietly, take notes and comply, rationalizing that at least you’re not doing anything negative. But the opportunity cost your newly lean, highly leveraged organization faces is significant.

Again, I agree. But there are instances where the leadership gets the team it deserves. Hey leadership, if you create an environment where people are afraid to speak, then um … they’re going to be afraid to speak.

The bottom line is, while I applaud Godin’s philosophy and personally think it’s more interesting to engage than not, I recognize that sometimes it’s just not worth the trouble.

In these cases, I say to heck with the “cost” of neutral and instead will happily agree with my elders that “silence is golden.”

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