The Trap of Silence
The Trap of Silence
Have you ever been afraid to speak up, especially about a controversial issue? Whether as a friend, a spouse, or a co-worker, have you ever kept quiet because you were afraid of being labeled as “negative” or “not a team player”?
I know I have… too many times to count. I guess you could say I chose the safety of silence over potential negative consequences.
According to a DecisionWise study, I’m not alone! As a matter of fact, 34 percent of employees in the U.S., do not speak up even when they know they should, because of fear of retribution.
If I had to guess, many believers struggle with this very issue because they have a hard time distinguishing between speech that’s self-serving or even hurtful from speaking the truth in love in order to make things better.
Lines get blurry, and because it often comes down to the intent of the heart, most of us opt for the safer option. We think that by not speaking up, we are at least not harming anyone or being misunderstood.
Silence often brings terrible long-term consequences.
Many of us have probably forgotten WorldCom’s public, humiliating and devastating failure. But I think it's worth revisiting since it gives us a great insight about the cost of staying silent versus speaking up.
In the early 2000s, WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers was so consumed with achieving incredible growth that any means to this end eventually became an acceptable part of the corporate culture. Ebbers’ Chief Financial Officer, Scott Sullivan, eager to make his boss happy and show increasing revenue and income, ultimately resorted to accounting gimmicks to help achieve the desired results.
Quite a number of people, even an external audit firm, became involved in the shenanigans. There were also others who knew what was happening and yet, for whatever reason, they chose to stay quiet.
In the midst of the chaos and the immense pressure to perform emerged three middle managers whose moral and ethical compasses remained intact. Gene Morse, Cynthia Cooper and Glyn Smith stumbled upon the corporation’s huge accounting discrepancies, and they suddenly faced a major dilemma:
“Do I say something that will incriminate and expose my leadership and my organization? Or do I stay quiet, turn a blind eye and just worry about keeping my position as long as I can?”
When others chose to turn the “blind eye,” perhaps giving in to the lie that exposing the problem would make them look like “naysayers” and “troublemakers,” Morse, Cooper and Smith decided they could not do that.
Instead, in order to get the full understanding of what was happening, they spent countless after-work hours uncovering and documenting all the inconsistencies. Putting their well-paid careers on the line, these three chose integrity over fear, self- preservation, selfish ambition, lies and deceit.
In their Wall Street Journal article titled: “How Three Unlikely Sleuths Exposed Fraud at WorldCom,” Pulliam and Solomon discussed the actions of Ms. Cooper, who led the charge to uncover the fraud and dared to challenge a fraudulent external audit. They wrote, “Some internal auditors would have left it at that and moved on. After all, both the company's chief financial officer and its outside accountants had signed off on the decision. But that was not Ms. Cooper's style.”
The end result of the brave work by Cooper, Morse and Smith was a public exposure of the $11 billion accounting fraud. The Bankruptcy Court directed the newly appointed Board of Directors to implement much-needed changes, including building “formalized and well-documented policies and procedures, including a clear and effective channel through which employees can raise concerns or report acts of misconduct.”
One can only wonder what might have happened if Ebbers, Sullivan and others in positions of leadership had empowered people like Cooper, Morse and Smith to speak up without fear of repercussions instead listening to the sleek and self-serving individuals who eventually steered them off course.
In an article for Harvard Business Review, James R. Detert (professor of management at Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management) and Amy C. Edmondson (Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School) share their research findings about Why Employees Are Afraid to Speak.
Detert and Edmondson say that THE primary reason for silence is self-preservation.
“While it’s obvious why employees fear bringing up certain issues, such as whistle-blowing, we found the innate protective instinct so powerful that it also inhibited speech that clearly would have been intended to help the organization. In our interviews, the perceived risks of speaking up felt very personal and immediate to employees, whereas the possible future benefit to the organization from sharing their ideas was uncertain. So people often instinctively played it safe by keeping quiet. Their frequent conclusion seemed to be, ‘When in doubt, keep your mouth shut.’”
According to Jon Simmons, we often use the following reasons not to speak up:
- I’m too new to have my opinion count.
- I disagree with everyone (hence, if I speak up, I’ll literally be the odd wheel).
- I’m not 100 percent sure if I’m right (hence, I will engage in paralysis of analysis, convincing myself that unless I have all i’s dotted and t’s crossed, I can't share an opinion or a thought).
- I may not win them over.
God Used Outspoken People… A Lot!
The Bible has to say a lot about the way we use words and the power of our tongue. God’s Word is also clear that, as much as He detests perverse speech, He wants us to use our words to bring wisdom, knowledge and help to others.
Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
Salt, used to preserve, to purify and to disinfect, is a perfect illustration to help us understand that our words, used with good intent and for a good purpose, can have the same effect!
God’s Word is also full of examples of brave men and women who, because they were willing to speak up, altered the course of leaders and nations.
Nathan: When King David sinned with Bathsheba and killed Bathsheba’s husband to cover his sin, God used Nathan to expose David’s sin and to eventually bring David to full repentance. Can you imagine what would have happened if Nathan had refused to be bold before his king?
Esther: God used Esther to expose Haman, the highest official in King Xerxes’ court, and to bring about the salvation of the Jewish people who were about to be destroyed.
Paul: Paul publicly challenged Peter for giving in to the pressure placed upon him by influential Jewish legalists, creating the perception that Gentiles needed to follow the Old Testament Law in order to be saved.
The list could go on and on, but I think we get the point.
The “trap” of silence is real, and it happens more often than we realize in our organizations.
If you are a leader, think about ways you can encourage open, productive and honest conversations among your team.
If you are a spouse, think how better and open communication could help you resolve some of the silent resentments you may be feeling towards your marriage partner.
If you are a follower, think about the ways your insights, full of grace and seasoned with salt, could propel your team and your organization forward.