Consider the story of Matthew.
Matthew is the CEO of a mid-sized technology company. The last several months have thrown Matthew into a frenzy. He’s witnessed calamities that he never fathomed, threats that have turned everything from his family to his company, upside down. Matthew had weathered countless business volatilities in the past, but never fathomed anything of this magnitude would hit in 2020.
It started with COVID-19. Then, the worst killing that he ever witnessed with his own eyes was broadcasted repeatedly on television. Protests ensued and Matthew watched the coverage from his couch. He was angry and shocked — and knew he had to do something.
So, Matthew assembled a special meeting with his leadership team. Feeling infuriated and numb, they all wanted to acknowledge the extraordinarily challenging forces facing the world, while also reiterating support for their employees. They agreed to send a communication out, then regroup and determine next steps.
Matthew worked with his head of communications in June to write and distribute that initial statement. It went out just a few weeks after George Floyd’s death. The statement was also eventually posted on all the company’s social media platforms.
Matthew and his team then went back to running the company. Staying financially afloat was the ultimate priority for the company in these financially challenging times. He figured that he would schedule a follow-up meeting within the next month or so.
Then, the months flew by. July came and went. August hit and employees became entrenched with finding some way to get their kids back to school in unprecedented times.
In September, Matthew was eventually forwarded an email from an employee sharing her concerns about what appeared to be a lack of response from the company. She had an extremely challenging summer. One of her relatives almost died from COVID, and, every single day, she experienced trauma from being a mother of a black son. She wanted to be a part of the solution and shared some organizations and resources with her manager that she felt the company could use.
Matthew felt terrible that he lost track of time so, a couple weeks later, he sat back down with his leadership team to figure out next steps.
As you can see, Matthew’s team is trapped in organizational silence. Many times organizational silence is implicit, but it almost always induces a domino effect signaling that the organization doesn’t care about important issues and/or that the issues should not be discussed.
You may have recently experienced circumstances similar to Matthew’s. Or, perhaps you work for a company that is led by a team similar to Matthew’s. Either way, you are probably wondering if you or your company is doing enough around DEI, and how you can do more.
Why Organizations Are Silent
There are many reasons why leaders are silent in organizations. Fear may be a factor in some cases, and, in others, culture and inherent organizational norms may be to blame. While organizational silence can originate with employees or leadership, this particular article is focused on the latter.
According to their research paper Organizational Silence: A Barrier to Change and Development in a Pluralistic World, authors Elizabeth Morrison and Frances Milliken found that organizations are more likely to experience organizational silence, especially originating in leadership teams, if the following factors are true:
1) Your leadership team is homogenous. Usually the group specifically harbors:
- Similar racial/cultural backgrounds
- An overall demographic dissimilarity in respect to employees (i.e., the leadership team is all male, for example, but the overall company is much more gender diverse)
- Similar average tenure / time at the company. The longer that the leadership team has been intact, the more likely they will be silent.
2) Your company is in a mature or stable industry.
3) Your company lacks upward feedback mechanisms to connect with employees.
Unfortunately, countless leadership teams meet at least of these factors so this study may explain why your organization may be caught in silence.
How to Step Out of Your Silence
While the odds are against you in some industries and teams, here are three actions you can take to start taking the first steps out of your sedentary silence:
1) Start Slow and Steady. Every DEI action you take does not need to create a big splash. In fact, the most beneficial actions might seemingly be those smaller in scale, such as going out of your way to have an uncomfortable conversation or soliciting candid feedback from employees. To set your slow-and-steady journey in motion, commit to taking 2-3 actionable steps a week. Go slow, but stay steady. You will eventually build new habits.
2) Prioritize people over plans. People are more important than project plans! Yes, we do need to put structures and actions in place in order to create long-term change, but it’s important to constantly reflect on WHY you are doing the work in the first place. The work should go in this order: 1) understand what people are actually experiencing, 2) accept why things need to change, 3) make the plans. Resist skipping to #3, a common misstep, with every bone in your body. Always put your people first.
3) Accept the awkwardness: Once you start putting yourself out there, you may dive into a conversation, feel stuck, and even trip over your words. You may be fumbling for the next thing to say. You may feel embarrassed for not knowing what to say next. Your head may be racing.
I often tell leaders to form an alliance with their awareness. Welcome and embrace awkwardness because, when you experience it, you know that you are outside of your comfort zone.
An immediate action you can take is to admit your discomfort and move on. Don’t let it hold you back. Everyone is in the same predicament.
If you are feeling overly silent or feel that your leader is, pass on these tips along with the reasoning behind your actions. Once you step out of your silence, you are stepping into the remnants of completely different organizational culture. Embrace your awkwardness, prioritize people, start slow — and keep it moving.
Stay tuned for our next topic: Empathizing With Your Employees: Creating a Culture of (Psychologically Safe) DEI Conversations.
LaTonya Wilkins, ACC, is an ICF-credentialed empowerment and executive coach, global culture leader, and keynote speaker. LaTonya inspires her clients to think beyond training to make real change in organizations. To subscribe to the full beyond training series, click here. You can learn more about LaTonya at changecoaches.io.