How to Break the Conspiracy of Silence
The organization was under scrutiny from regulators and the media. That’s a big deal when you have over 15,000 employees. The conspiracy of silence had come home to roost.
To make matters worse, a long-term culture of, “go along to get along,” oozed from offices at every location.
It’s sad when employees of large organizations adopt a, “don’t rock the boat” approach to their work. Unresolved issues grow like boils until someone lances them.
When you don’t dig into your own issues, someone else will.
The leader told his team:
I’ll own every issue you bring to me before it goes public.
If I get blindsided by an issue you knew about, but didn’t tell me, you’re fired.
In a culture of fear, make people afraid to be silent.
Courageous leaders open closets and turn on lights. Pretending things are OK when they aren’t, expresses misguided self-preservation. Saving face is the path to average.
Six keys to opening closets:
- Acknowledge that problems fester and grow in the dark.
- Don’t soften the brutal facts. Solutions don’t begin until problems are named, described, owned, and confronted.
- Follow through. If you say you’re going to own it, but your throw people under the bus, you’re done.
- Dig at scabs with optimism. There’s no place for long-term pity parties at the top.
- Honor and reward honesty.
- Punish, reform, or remove go-along types.
Leaders who sweep issues under the carpet are doomed to lead stagnant, ineffective, inefficient organizations.
Ignored problems grow until they can’t be ignored.
Go to Facebook and add your response to: “Reasons organizations cover up problems include _______.”
How can leaders get to the bottom of tough issues when people are afraid to bring them up?
Good one, Dan!
Especially in times of change and challenges, it’s my experience that fear is a key reason why organizations cover things up. Not necessarily because they want to or have a culture of “management by fear” but simply because managers themselves are fearful of not being able to overcome the challenges. Fear festers and silence spreads and, as you correctly point out, that leads to stagnation and decline.
When meeting new people in our organization I always promise two things, 1) I will never be upset if they bring me bad news and 2) if you sweep your problems under a rug, sooner or later the bump gets so big someone will trip over it… 🙂
Joseph Heller wrote a really interesting novel called “Something Happened”. Has anyone else read it and seen how well it describes what Dan calls the “Conspiracy of Silence” and how that causes fear to well up in people?
Thanks Paul. I hear compassion and strength in your explanation of fear. It opens my heart to the idea that people can be afraid to bring something up because they are afraid they can’t overcome.
I haven’t read Heller’s book. But, anyone who agrees with me seems smart. 🙂
How DO you express situations so perfectly with such few words? What a gift you have! Clearly you read constantly about leadership, but you distill what you read and turn it into digestible daily nuggets for us to chew on each day. I am so grateful.
You describe the problems of the last full time situation I was in so eloquently. It is like you were there. Were you?
You draw a map that shows the way to successful resolution, but too few people have the courage and/or the integrity to take that route. How sad that is.
Thanks for looking under the bed to reveal the dust mites and keeping us focused on solutions.
Thanks Dauna. My head is getting puffed up. 🙂
In this case, the situations was easy because it was real and the conversation I had with the leader is still in my mind. When they told me what they did, I asked permission to write about it.
We need more leaders who will abandon themselves to serving the welfare of their organization.
Well one way is see the end result and reverse engineer it back to the beginning.
The beginning the Leader read Simons stuff….lol
Seriously, it starts with one authentic person. Then this Leader got what every success requires. Their first follower.
Their interactions created more oxytocin than cortisol and trust emerged.
Then it spread.
Or create more cortisol and it spreads.
All biological like dealing with Pavlov’s dogs. Yeah with our egos, we think much higher of ourselves than animals being encouraged by folks who understand the triggers of influence and persuasion.
Thing is we act more by our nature than our intellect just only a scant few have enough understanding of themselves to know that and even fewer still willing to admit it!
Just the human condition!!!!
SP back to oxy production!!!!!
Thanks Scott. The leader in the story definitely meets the authenticity test.
I believe Dan taking it one step farther the Leader in every successful story is authentic.
Long sustained stories. Crummy people can create an event but not a long sustained oxy machine.
What do you do when you open the closet and turn on the lights and see the mess? Should the leader communicate the commitment that if you are honest with me about problems, I’ll be honest with you about dealing with the messes we find?
I would like to believe that this was possible. In truth, there are only a limited number of leaders who have enough “power” to eliminate a problem by themselves. I feel that a leader who is honest about really hearing your problem and who is committed to giving their best effort to make the situation better is a leader I want to work with. Honesty in effort and in understanding are powerful leadership qualities.
“Ditto Dennis, you said a mouthfull”! One of the greatest misconception of many of todays leaders is, “they really DO think they can do it themselves”! They shut out, shut down, and shoot down innovativness and espirit-de-corps. Is it any wonder why employees, ‘even good employees’, become frustrated and simply (give up the good fight)! Thanks again Dennis, Steve
To Dennis, just a thought. Tell me the name of any Leader who solved a problem themselves.
My point is that is not really possible.
One Dude or Dudess might come up with an idea……then others have to follow the idea. Then the ones out there, right, the ones new idea effects have to get jiggy with something different.
We are all in this together and like when the pebble hits the pond, ripples happen.
So the good news is if anything is gonna happen it IS going to be a group effort.
The bad news is if anything IS going to happen it is a group effort.
Think you will come to the same conclusion when you really think about what you said.
Guess thumbs down is the name of leader I asked for! Hehe
Funny name! Haha
Thanks Duane and Steve… You make me think about the importance of working on solutions collaboratively. In large organizations, one person can set a direction but it usually takes a team to solve issues and problems.
I know you don’t believe in the messiah-leader who rides in and solves everyone’s problems. Sometimes, I think people hope someone will solve their problems FOR them rather than WITH them.
“We” and “with” are huge leadership words.
Bullseye! You hit on one of those human traits that powerful ruthless leaders use to their advantage, the conspiracy of silence. Often, ruthless leaders will use fear as a tool to generate a subservient staff so they can follow through with their agenda. If that leader is near or at the top, it is VERY HARD to fight the fear and the silence that is generated. My strategy:
1. Focus your team on the positives they are bringing to your clients
2. Encourage you team daily on the differences they are making
3. Focus on short term wins until the “storm” (bad leadership) has subsided
4. Encourage your team to talk to positive allies and use the power of positive politics
5. Ignore those who are attacking your self esteem and/or trying to scare you into silence
6. Be the filter of negative messages to your team. Sometimes the fear tactics have no basis in truth. You must be honest and reveal the real message that is being hidden to your staff … whether that is good or bad.
7. Try to lead by example and practice the positive offensive against the conspiracy of silence
8. Sometimes … the best strategy is to find a better place to work … so brush off your resume, find a better job, because there is nothing worse than working with a bunch of ostriches and rogue bus drivers.
I can give you examples but I’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement.
Thanks Michael. Your comment is chock full of useful insights. I can tell you’ve walked the path. I’m glad you stopped in today.
Maintaining a positive focus in the midst of negative issues is an essential leadership attitude. I see that approach all over what you wrote.
The irony was I was let go due to “lack of leadership skills”. My positive networking was not up to par but everything else, as far as approaching my team as a leader, was on track. The bus did hurt but I’m on the mend.
Control theory tells us we need to measure accurately, determine where processes vary from targets, understand what inputs cause the variations, provide feedback to those inputs, and measure results. The measurement needs to be accurate, the targeted control limits need to be within process capabilities, the inputs need to be understood, the feedback needs to be timely and accurate, and the control responses need to be of appropriate time, duration, and quantity. Without appropriate controls, entropy and chaos govern processes.
The same reasoning can be applied to organizations. We can only improve what we are willing to measure, to set targets for, to understand, to accept feedback, and to apply feedback appropriately. Ego, lying, refusal to accept feedback are all destructive to the organization, and result in its inevitable decay, to the glorification of firefighters rather than builders, to the organization’s failure to achieve its purpose.
Thanks Marc. The willingness to measure takes real courage. But, as you indicate is essential to the process. YOu don’t have to like the results. YOu just have to be prepared to adapt, measure again, and so on…
Control Theory, huh?
Like Lucy trying to control the pies coming down the conveyor belt?
If we keep this as simple as human possible the the lowest common denominator can pitch in.
Now if we look at people as subjects to be controlled WE are the weak link.
Here is the simplest strategy I have ever found. Instead of theories that some lame brain with no experience expounded on…..look for desired results.
Barry Wehmiller. Grown from 20 million a year to 1.5 Billion. Anyone with a company like to grow like that? 15% divedend to shareholders each year when average S&P company averaged 3% during the same 5 year period. 7000 employees with a 72% employee satisfaction rate. Deloitte did a survey recently says 80% of US employees feel disengaged at work.
So are any of the results Barry Wehmiller gets NOT to anyone’s liking? Ok which one?
So instead of some control nonsense that contributes to the problem just tell me how it does not make sense to find out simply what Barry Wehmiller does and just COPY what they think say and do?
I just do not see how that does not make sense, do you?
You know when I was 24 I had never sold anything before. Got involved in this company and I was just too stupid to not listen. I was also I guess too stupid to not know it would not work.
I simply repeated what others had done that had the results I wanted.
62 days later I took a breath and I had sold 162,000 worth of those companies products.
Just cause I was not too smart for my own good. Maybe that experience could help some of you. The solutions are all sitting right there in front of you.
Find a company or a person….whatever…..that are getting the results you want and find out how they did it. Do what they do.
Will get you a lot farther than any theory, heard dat!!!!!
SP back to generating oxy
Good morningDan. I’ve worked in several fields since leaving the Marine Corps. In my experience one thing is perfectly clear, this ” don’t rock the boat attitude seems epidemic.” Identifying problems and working through solutions require honesty. This can only be done when organizations purposfully build cultures where honesty isn’t just expected, but demanded. Many leaders publically claim they want to hear the truth however most only want the truth if it comes with a’pat on the back’. How many of us have set through debriefs, or meetings to discuss the effectivness of programs or processes we know either don’t work, or could work much better, only to hear how wonderful we all did? And here’s the kicker, if you REALLYwant to hear the truth, give everyone a 10 minute break, walk out into the hallway, look toward the water fountain or the restrooms and find small groups critiqueing (Honestly). This kind of behavior wasn’t always natural. It’s a byproduct of the culture your business has built. It takes great strength of character for the leader who truly believes honesty is the best policy. Honesty requires us at times to say, “I was wrong, I apologise, let’s find a better solution.” Anyone would admit that no one is perfect yet the higher folks go up the ladder of success, the harder it is to find many who remain committed to this philosophy. “Heaven forbid others might find a chink in our armor”. Start by asking for, (if not demanding), honesty. Be certain to recognize honesty thanking those for thier insight and candor. For those who refuse to conform, make your objectives and expectations perfectly clear. The very best teams work together collectivley toward a commom vision, those who don’t, or won’t commit to the team mission, don’t belong on the team. Character is the true heart of the issue, 1st know yourself, your strengths and limatations and remain open to opportunities for growth. Nobody is right all the time, it’s the wise leader that contunally work to perfect his craft. Not sure where I heard this one Dan but I like it, – “I NEVER lose,, I either win, or I learn”!!! You hit uh Homerun Dano…
Thanks SGT. I feel the passion in your comment. A courageous, humble leader is a thing of beauty.
I see courage in the willingness to face the brutal facts.
I see humility in the readiness to take responsibility w/o blame
“Ignored problems grow until they can’t be ignored.”
This is not a problem of only leaders in big companies it happen more to me in small companies. Fear is the worst a leader can plant in the head of the employees. Thanks for sharing Dan.
Thanks Why? Had a conversation this morning with a leader who waited five years to address an issue. I asked, How does it feel? He said, “Great.”
I asked, “Do you wish you’d acted sooner?”
He said, “Absolutely.”
Great advices, not only for the leaders of any big organizations, but for all people living their lives!
Thanks Yan. Yes indeed. The ideas here apply to individuals, moms, dads, teachers, students.. you name it.
What I’ve found amazing is how obvious the solutions can be once that bump in the rug is discussed in terms of the highest potential outcome from dealing with it. Framing the discussion that way opens the doors for creative, win-win-win ideas, and also enables a discussion that is based on organizational values. Sometimes uncovering that bump can the catalyst to an exciting new opportunity.
But I’ll add to the voices above praising how well you concisely captured the issue; you have tremendous strength in that. You never give simplistic answers just because space is limited.
Thanks Jane. Thanks for pointing out the shift that happens once we face the truth. The key change happens when we move from hiding/ignoring to a decision to seek solutions. That changes everything. Great add.
Oh stop with the praise! 😉
It would seem, the larger the organization gets (even think of governments), the more insidiously accountability entropy takes root from top to bottom and back up again. There are just so many people trying to do so many good things and a few people trying to do no things (and still get paid), that we lose sight of the pathway to our vision of what could be/what should be.
As organizations grow, managers get promoted to leadership positions, often without the necessary leadership training and entropy drops another load on the masses. These new leaders have an old managerial vision that marginally, at best, serves those they serve. This requires organizational commitment to ongoing learning and training.
While all of the above is certainly disheartening, keep the faith, light the hope, because you do have that choice. Own the mess and dig in ‘with’ to fix it. As Marc noted, you do have to measure the depth of the mess, not a lot of fun, but then you know what you didn’t know. And if the new leaders have had training in coaching, mentoring, visioning, creating synergistic teams, et al, then you have a backhoe to dig up the mess rather than a shovel!
Thanks Doc. The progression of your comment feels a bit like the progression we take when we acknowledge a problem and commit to make things better.
Things go down until someone turns the light on.
I’ve noticed that some people rise up to set new direction when there is finally courage to confront the brutal facts. After digging into the issues they dig in and work together to make it better.
There is something powerful about facing negative issues with optimism. Not pie in the sky but realistic optimism.
Another home run!
I was part of a large organization that suffered from chronic compliance problems. The senior leadership committed to an entire year of uncovering the issues and course correcting. Similar to “making people afraid to be silent,” the philosophy of no repeats was adopted. The first time an issue was identified resources were utilized to fix it. If the issue was repeated, the responsible employees were held accountable. Times were tough yet improvements were made.
Good to read your comments based on own experience. This kind of act happens when a new leader joins either at the top level or at a department level and he sees the mess around. His immediate task is to attend to the pending issues and review the prevailing irregularities. He shall take the help of key identified persons and put the house in order. His subsequent priority will be to bring back the confidence of other staff by installing good systems and procedures and ensuring performance based work culture with good recognition for the achievers.
I can’t help but fully agree with you. In my last company, we had a case where a favoured employee was found guilty of fraud and embezzlement, and the company wanted to hush it up. I wanted to talk about it, and I was told to let it pass!
The conspiracy of silence is very deep indeed. Very, very deep
A good eye-opening post! Things that you have stated are absolutely true and meaningful. I especially liked your bold statement, ‘Leaders who sweep issues under the carpet are doomed to lead stagnant, ineffective, inefficient organizations’.
A good leader will have the courage and ears to listen to the grievances of followers and involve them to seek solutions. Procrastination is the greatest evil which needs to be avoided if aiming for a planned success in a stipulated time period..
I remembered this song from the 90’s when I read your post. It captures the essence of “hide and seek” work cultures. Left a previous employer because of these kinds of issues and told HR during my exit interview: “The work here ceased being work worth doing”. They had no response and seemed dismayed.
Under The Rug” Lyrics 
by Randy Stonehill | from the album The Lazarus Heart
I have a secret I can’t tell, and I’ve learned to conceal it well,
Under the rug.
I have a secret I can’t tell, and I’ve learned to conceal it well,
Ah, but this disturbing smell keeps coming from the carpet, (under the rug)
That’s where the old ghosts hide away, down in the darkness and decay,
I work so hard to make them stay down beneath the floorboards. (under the rug)
Oh, I needed the perfect plan, but it’s all gotten out of hand,
I keep my head in the sand now,
It’s so scary under the rug.
“Bury your sins and they won’t survive,” I told myself ’til the big surprise,
Down in the dirt is where they thrive, like little poison toadstools,
Under the rug,
It’s the thing in Pandora’s box, biting through all the chains and locks,
Now the whole house is rocking,
It’s so scary under the rug, (so scary)
It’s so hairy under the rug, (under the rug)
It’s so scary under the rug.
Oh, skeletons dance, and I fear they might rattle their bones in the broad daylight,
So I wear a poker face; I close all the curtains just in case,
But something lurks in the crawling space, pointing bony fingers, (under the rug)
I hear the ticking of my telltale heart, like a bomb set to blow my world apart,
I wish that guilt would make us smart, but I’m sweeping all this garbage…
I have a secret I can’t tell, and I’ve learned to conceal it well,
Under the rug.
Well said! The first level of the leader’s courage is seen in ‘…turn on the lights and open the closets’ and the next level, I guess, is in dealing and owning what is found.