Silence is golden. Yes, in certain situations and with certain people, it pays to be silent and it pays to keep your mouth shut. But when should you remain silent and when should you speak up? Say in school, a bully was harassing a schoolmate and you were a witness to the ugly incident. Should you report the incident to a teacher, to help your schoolmate or should you keep quiet, knowing the bully will then target you? This is a situation of moral ambiguity and being silent. Another such mute situation could take place in the workplace or the office.
Employee Silence Definition
What if something was bothering you at work and you can't or won't tell your supervisor or manager, even if you know they can solve the issue? Or say you know someone is doing something wrong and instead of speaking out against it, you keep silent, as you are afraid of approaching your employers. So you hesitate to report wrong workplace behavior to your superiors. This sort of silence can occur when it comes to expressing your ideas and thoughts. You may feel hesitant about expressing your ideas.
Another situation for workers silence, is if there is an internal conflict and only an authority figure can solve it but the problem is no one is saying anything. This "mums-the-word" attitude amongst the employees in an organization, where irrespective of better or worse impact, they keep silent and withhold information from their superiors, is called employee silence. The two examples below will further illustrate this sort of muteness:
In the ABC comedy series, Better Off Ted, Ted, the R&D manager holds a team meeting to discuss the extent of a particular project. At the meeting, he asks his team members to come up with some ideas. Ted is an easygoing, patient manager but a young female member of this group hesitates to express herself and holds out on some good ideas. Her silence means the team chooses the wrong idea and ends up with a lot of extra work, which could have been avoided.
Employees of XYZ Corp Ltd used to have manager A. They were a happy content lot. Then manager B replaced A. Now the employee group is tense and unhappy. During a meeting with HR, the normally active group is curiously withdrawn and dull. When asked about how is B's leadership, the group's silence is very telling and no one wants to speak up.
Causes of Silent Employees
When does an individual turn silent? When he/she feels their input is of no use, when they face criticism for their ideas, when they fear they will be mocked. Similarly an employee can be chastised by his/her manager and hold a grudge. So he/she decides to adopt a silent attitude. Maybe he/she had come up with an idea and it was shot down or criticized. So now he/she will hesitate to speak up and will soon become an "observer", not a "participant". If there is a poor reporting structure in the organization, where favoritism is present or the manager is in charge and his word is law, then a sense of injustice or unfairness prevails.
In such circumstances, who would want to talk? Another situation can be fear of consequences from talking. Speaking out about an organizational issue can threaten the employee's position in the company and fearing for his job security, he may choose to remain silent.
Sometimes employees are silent simply because there is no one to discuss or say anything to. This can happen in a virtual workplace, where the manager and the workers are not together and are separated by distance and time. Here there is no actual communication between the manager and the employees, instructions are conveyed through emails or faxes. So employees learn to keep quiet about their problems or issues and treat the boss figure, like some faceless entity, in charge of dictates and rules.
Silence can be deadly and when an atmosphere of employee silence prevails, the consequences can be long-term and hidden until it is too late. The organization suffers financially and management-wise, when faced with a lack of communication. And in career fields like the Army, air traffic and management, and the medical industry, silent employees who fail to convey issues and unethical behavior, can end up harming the general public.
Imagine what would happen if due to an internal conflict between 2 air traffic controllers, a landing plane receives the wrong information from the air control tower. Such situations can arise out of poor management and broken communication lines, so the seriousness of a silent employee situation cannot be ignored. Communicate with your superiors and juniors alike. Keep the lines of communication open in your management circles within your power and prevent this silent demeanor amongst your colleagues and employees.