The Corporate Cancer: Silence

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For corporate boards, silence can be more than detrimental. It can be devastating.

silenceConflict is a hard sell. Unaddressed conflict fractures the ‘WE’ of your team, especially if you as the leader have not provided your team with the skills and support to address it in a healthy way. When conflict shows up it creates discomfort and can break apart relationships and teams.

Why, then, do we encourage conflict? Because silence is even more detrimental than conflict. It’s deadly.

With corporate boards, silence can be more than detrimental. It can be devastating. The degree of difficulty and the sheer magnitude of the problems addressed in a typical board meeting require all hands on deck. Everybody in the room is an expert, and you need all the expert opinions, even the ones that may stir the pot or cause some rancor.

Have you ever heard an idea and known it was either a bad suggestion or would cause more problems — and yet you said nothing? You stayed silent because you didn’t want to make a meeting last longer. Or you decided that maybe you were wrong, they were right, and everything would be fine. Perhaps the person you disagreed with was a longtime teammate, or even a friend outside of the office. Why upset the relationship?

“Unsaid things go underground and create a toxic environment, resulting in a slow death for organizations.”

Maybe nothing horrible happened, but what if it had?

The truth is, silence is one of the biggest problems in relationships, particularly on teams and on boards. Speaking up in tough situations is crucial to effective problem solving. When we remain silent, say, about someone’s bad behavior, then we are complicit. We help perpetuate the bad behavior.  When we stay silent or blame another person in our heads or behind their backs, we’re making ourselves a victim and the other person, the villain.

And, by the way, silence on the outside doesn’t mean silence on the inside. Our outer silence only masks the ongoing rant in our head. It keeps us from seeing our part in the problem, and that leaves the team’s collective potential to the loudest person. In silence, we abdicate our responsibility in the WE, the relationship. We miss how everyone’s role contributes to the outcome. It is easy to blame the bully, but on a team, silent members equally contribute to the dysfunction of the ‘WE,’ the team.

Silence, at its core, is failure to expose, express, or reveal a different point of view (i.e., conflict).

You may not think it’s that important, but in the health care industry, lack of conflict, can and does injure and kill people. In most businesses, conflict is usually less of a safety issue and more of a strategic one that has to be addressed.  In all businesses, silence not only stops creativity and innovation, but also creates what we call, “corporate cancer.” Unsaid things go underground and create a toxic environment, resulting in a slow death for organizations.

So, yes, we sell conflict, even knowing it is a hard sell. 

Some Tips to Break the Silence

As a leader, it’s your job to watch and notice when people are uncomfortable and not speaking up. You may have to slow down the meeting or delay a critical decision to open the floor for naysayers and reluctant people to speak up.

Here’s how you can encourage people to speak up when you notice those tell-tale signs of discomfort:

  • “I realize people may be hesitant to speak up because you think we’re too far down this path to stop. I want to say right now, we can decide this is a no go. Nothing is off limits at this point.”


  • “I notice that Ted, Mary, and I have been doing most of the talking. It is so easy for us to carry on and for me to think everyone is on board. This is an important decision. So let’s pause and check in with the rest of you individually.”


  • “I feel a sense of urgency about this project, and I may be shutting down dialogue with my desire to move ahead. I think we’d benefit from taking a step back and each identifying one potential risk to our current direction. Let’s put our concerns on the table. (Pause, and if no one speaks up, you give the first concern.) I’ll go first.”

These are just a few examples of how you as a leader can step in and shift a longstanding pattern of silence.

It’s important to do this regularly when a decision is coming to a critical point. And you may want to go first more than once to underscore for team members that it’s okay to stop the momentum and speak up.

Did you know that in your greatest potential for creativity lies in your greatest discomfort?

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