Friday, November 2, 2012

Silencing the Silence

How often have we heard that the silence is deafening? Can you really hear a pin drop? Do the crickets actually commence to chirping as soon as the elephant enters the room? describes the noun of silence as:
1. absence of any sound or noise; stillness.
2. the state or fact of being silent; muteness.
3. absence or omission of mention, comment, or expressed concern: the conspicuous silence of our newspapers on local graft.
4. the state of being forgotten; oblivion: in the news again after years of silence.

As a leader I find it interesting that silence is defined as the omission of mention, comment or expressed concern. As I reflect on the noun of silence, I wonder what conditions are created that force teammates or employees to purposely fail to bring about issues of concern. Is the culture so toxic and threatening that members hold their tongue when they need to address really important issues?  In order to answer the questions about how silence is created, we must dig deeper to learn more about silence. goes further to describe the verb of silence:
1. to put or bring to silence; still.
2. to put (doubts, fears, etc.) to rest; quiet.
3. Mil. to still (enemy guns), as by more effective fire.

Here we find that the action of silence has 2 opposing responsibilities for leaders to consider.  Each action will take the culture of an organization to 2 completely different places.

1. Leaders can squelch the conversation and subdue voices that differ from theirs, or 
2. Leaders can put fears, doubts or uncertainty to rest.

To synthesize this even further, suppressing the conversation does not put fears to rest, and putting fears to rest requires anything but cutting off the conversation.

So what steps do leaders take to silence the silence?

1. Welcome the Elephant into the Room

The leader must model a positive approach to solving difficult problems. Keeping the team focused on what's best for the organization is key to effectively dealing with difficult situations.  Conversation must be open, authentic and focused on a resolution. People appreciate a leader when he has the courage to address the elephant.  They see that moving forward is not only attainable but essential.

2.  Listen to the Crickets

When the crickets are chirping, trust is uncertain.  Fear and uncertainty abound.  This is your cue to put fears and uncertainty to rest.  Frequent individual conversations with multiple people and continued dialogue with the group are essential to remove the perceived gag-order.  As long as the crickets are chirping, your progress is stalled.  If you want to quell the crickets, you have to make some noise.

3. Question Why the Pins are Dropping

If you want to help your team members, you have to allow them to address their own doubts.  Leaders are most successful at helping others when they use reflective questioning, rather than endless suggestions and directives, to guide others to untangle their own web of confusion.  To help teams discover the answer to why silence is present, the leader can't answer his own questions.  The answer is in the room and the team has to find it with your support and guidance.

Silencing the silence takes courage.  It takes vision, and it requires an unwavering commitment not to people, but to something bigger, the team.  It requires situational awareness which is only possible when the leader knows their staff deeply, knows the daily undercurrents of the organization and uses both pieces of information to guide the organization to resolve its problems and ultimately to become better for kids and each other. If the leader fails to confront the elephant, the crickets and the pin-dropping, they will lull their staff to a state of silent lucidity.


  1. Good bit, John.

    I've worked in too many schools where conversations are discouraged by school leaders who are afraid of where the conversation will lead.

    A part of me wonders if their actions are about speed. Collecting ideas and respecting voices and building consensus is a time consuming process.

    And another part of me wonders if their actions are about fear -- fear that they may NOT know exactly how to respond to challenges or may not have faith in their own decisions.

    Any of this make sense?

  2. Bill,

    It makes complete sense. Fear and speed are two issues, but for me the underlying issue is control. Leaders have to let go and trust others to solve their own problems.

    Speeding through problems can also based on fear, and fear is based on the perceived loss to control. If the leader doesn't have the answers, his fear is exacerbated. Our traditional model of school leadership requires leaders to know all, direct all and guarantee all.

    The 21st century model of leadership requires leaders to ask all, empower all and guide all. It can't be done until we silence the silence.

    Thanks for the feedback and helping me clarify this thought even further