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Identifying and Overcoming the ‘Silent Disease’ in Executive Teams

Identifying and Overcoming the ‘Silent Disease’ in Executive Teams

There’s a saying that goes, “Silence is golden.” In the workplace, many executives and even employees at lower levels consider these four words to be the ultimate wisdom for their careers. After all, “talk too much, and you’re bound to make mistakes,” and “being in the limelight attracts criticism.” Making a wrong statement can be detrimental.

However, I believe that silence is “forbidden” in the workplace.

How should we interpret this?

I hope this article will provide you with some insights.

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“The Silent Disease”

In many organizations, there’s a common phenomenon where no one speaks up during meetings, especially in executive teams. When you ask why they aren’t speaking up, their response is often, “The more you speak, the more likely you are to make mistakes.”

Multiple studies have shown that this kind of silence is quite prevalent. Through interviews with professionals and the collection and analysis of relevant data, we have conducted in-depth research on the occasions and reasons people hesitate to speak up in the workplace. Even when individuals believe that what they have to say is important for the organization, clients, or themselves, they often remain silent.

In simple terms, this is the phenomenon of “not delivering bad news to the meeting.” However, we’ve found that besides “not delivering bad news,” employees also frequently “hide good ideas.”

As shown in the diagram below, telling the truth can be challenging and may have a significant impact at critical moments (but it may also not).

Unwritten “Rules” for Deciding When to Speak Up or Stay SilentInterview Examples
Avoid commenting on matters where upper-level leadership may be involved.“It’s risky in itself because if I raise dissenting opinions, my superiors might think I’m meddling, as after all, they are in charge of the task.”
“The higher-ups may have established certain processes they are closely tied to, and questioning it might be seen as an offense.”
Don’t speak without reliable data.“I believe that presenting an immature idea without research is never a good idea. If you challenge their ideas, it’s best to have evidence to support your claims.”
Refrain from speaking when your superior’s superior is present.“It’s risky when there’s someone of higher rank present because you fear your immediate boss may perceive it as going over their head.”
“My boss would think I’m causing disruption by talking to his superior.”
Avoid making any negative remarks about the work within the team to save face for upper-level leadership.“Superiors don’t like being embarrassed in front of others. It’s best to address them privately so that they don’t face sudden embarrassment.”
“You should first talk to your superior privately to avoid them ‘being blindsided.'”
Speaking out will affect your career.“Halting or commenting on a project will end our careers.”
“It will have long-term adverse consequences because higher-ups dislike being put in an awkward position.”

What is “psychological safety”?

All the phenomena mentioned above are manifestations of a lack of “psychological safety.”

Psychological safety exists when you are not afraid to be yourself, take risks, make mistakes, ask questions, and have differing opinions.

In the face of the “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) external environment, creating a “psychological safety” space can directly impact the profitability of any company. This is because employees’ observations, comments, questions, thoughts, and concerns can provide valuable information about the current situation for the market and the organization. Additionally, diversity, inclusivity, and a sense of belonging in the workplace are becoming increasingly important. Therefore, creating a “psychological safety” space has become an essential responsibility for leaders.

Psychological safety is like a double-edged sword; it can either shape or weaken employees’ ability to contribute, grow, learn, and collaborate.

In Google’s “Five Traits of Highly Effective Teams” study, they identified psychological safety as the most crucial factor. They found that people are naturally inclined not to display behaviors that might give others a negative impression. This self-preservation is a common strategy in the workplace. However, this behavior is harmful to effective team collaboration. On the other hand, the safer team members feel with each other, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, become collaborators, and take on new roles. It affects almost every significant aspect of employee engagement. Team members with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from team members, and deliver twice the efficiency of other teams they lead.

How to create psychological safety? “Radical Candor” is one of the keys.

In the book “Radical Candor,” the author shares a story from her time at Google. When she joined Google, she had her first report to senior Google executives. After the presentation, her boss, Sheryl (former Senior Vice President at Google), candidly told her that she tended to say “um” every three words while speaking, which could make the audience feel a bit uncomfortable. As a result, her boss suggested that she attend a speech training course. Reflecting on her past fifteen years, she had given hundreds of speeches but no one had ever mentioned this issue to her before. In that moment, she felt two things: first, her boss genuinely cared about her growth, and second, her boss directly challenged her to confront her own issues.

“Radical Candor” involves providing feedback in a way that is both caring and direct. It’s about being honest with others while also showing that you care about their personal and professional development. This approach can help create a psychological safety space where people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, making mistakes, and taking risks, knowing that they will receive candid and constructive feedback to help them grow.

Companies and leadership teams that can truly achieve radical candor are not common. One reason for this is the behavioral habits we’ve been cultivated with since childhood – to seek harmony, be kind to others, and avoid embarrassing or shaming them. As a result, many people would rather keep their thoughts to themselves than confront others with uncomfortable truths. This tendency can lead to situations where people “choose a company because of the company and leave because of their boss.”

Another factor is the prevalence of what some might call “trolls” or “gadflies,” individuals who excel at finding flaws and weaknesses and relentlessly criticizing others, leaving them feeling defenseless.

Steve Jobs, for instance, was often considered a “gadfly” or even described as an “asshole.” In the book “Inside Steve’s Brain,” it is described how, on his first day back at Apple in 1997, Jobs gathered his senior team for a meeting and spared no harsh words: he sat down abruptly, looked around angrily, and softly asked, “Tell me what’s wrong?” Before anyone could respond, he immediately roared, “It’s the products!!! The products are terrible!!! They make people cringe!!!”

In contrast, in teams that embrace radical candor, people are willing to honestly express their viewpoints and even reveal their weaknesses. In such teams, members are willing to stand together, even in the face of failure, and view it as a learning opportunity. There’s a story about an IBM executive asking the company’s founder, Thomas Watson, if he should fire another executive because the $5 million project led by that executive had failed. The executive expected Watson to say, “Yes, I should fire him.” However, Watson responded with, “I just invested $5 million in his education!” Whether true or not, this story illustrates a very different attitude toward failure and emphasizes the importance of learning from it.

Simple Advice for CEOs

Creating a “psychological safety space” is particularly important for CEOs. Without a “psychological safety space,” a senior executive team cannot become a “true senior executive team.” Here are some simple pieces of advice for CEOs:

  1. Be Authentic:

For CEOs, truly becoming liked and understood by colleagues is a challenging task. Many CEOs in organizations seek long-term executive coaches because they feel lonely and misunderstood. However, we are seeing more and more new-generation CEOs shaping a new self-image. They occasionally put aside their “towering” image of control, accept their imperfections, and are willing to openly expose their vulnerabilities. You’d be surprised what happens: everyone finds the CEO more endearing. For example, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is often pranked by colleagues, participates in cosplay, or is even thrown into ball pits. (Of course, if you lack self-confidence, you might want to keep your mask on.)

  1. Foster Openness and Transparency:

Joe Dalio of Bridgewater Associates has taken this to the extreme. He makes almost all meeting recordings public, accessible to all employees, and encourages colleagues to provide the most sincere feedback to each other. We can see that in the age of information technology, openness and transparency have become essential principles for a company to respond rapidly to changes in the external world. “The Shift of Power” mentions that in the past, a worker who reported problems or ideas to higher-level leaders beyond their immediate supervisor would get into trouble. However, to achieve faster progress, it is necessary to shorten the distance between levels. Employees should be encouraged to bypass position constraints when necessary. In the post-industrial era, this accelerated innovation pressure will significantly weaken stable bureaucratic chains of command, driving the shift of power. Inside the organization, networks enable people to achieve all-encompassing, cross-cutting communication rapidly.

  1. Encourage Challenges:

In an era of rapid change, CEOs often play the role of the most capable “firefighter” and problem solver. However, new-age CEOs not only need to be able to sprint quickly but also continuously iterate themselves. This requires CEOs to have the ability to mobilize the entire organization and empathize with their teams. They should encourage their subordinates to express differing opinions directly while making it clear that they genuinely want to hear different voices. During our consulting process, when we see a meeting filled with harmony, it’s not a good sign. Progress is marked by meetings where many diverse voices are heard, and team members build on each other’s viewpoints, expressing their own opinions. Moreover, CEOs should actively encourage their subordinates to challenge their ideas and not constantly worry about the consequences of having their opinions rejected, such as job security or losing their leadership prestige. As a CEO, giving your subordinates the maximum trust is allowing them the freedom to express opposing views.

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