The Sound of Silence

While sometimes silence of welcomed, I have to say that in a learning organization, silence can be deadly. Silence in a learning organization means a lack of feedback. It means that people are likely too content, apathetic, scared or angry to communicate with specific feedback, and this is dangerous. It reminds me of the Simon and Garfunkel song:

Sound of silence

In a learning organization, feedback is critical to growth. Sometimes this feedback is positive: “You’re on the right track.” “The effort is paying off.” “The strategy you are using is getting results.” Sometimes feedback offers a correction: “Instead of this, I need you to…” “It might work better if…” “Next time I’d rather you …” Other times feedback sounds like this: “I hate it when you…” “You messed up.” “There’s going to be consequences.” However, even when feedback is negative, it gives the one receiving the feedback a chance to learn and grow if they choose.

People can only guess if their actions are working and more time and energy is spent trying to decipher the silence than working on creating results. “Is what I’m going working?” “Is what I’m doing wrong?” “Why won’t he/she speak to me?” It’s a guess and check method spent mostly on guessing.

Several years ago I worked in an organization where all feedback stopped. The “boss” literally quit speaking to me. In public, I was invisible. Even in a bathroom where there were only two of us, I did not exist. Awkward! I guess I eventually figured out the message. I was not needed, and it was better to go elsewhere. The crazy thing is, if the “boss” had just given me specific feedback, we both probably would have gotten what we wanted much more quickly without a lot of hassle.

It is imperative supervisors give feedback. Too often I see leaders who are afraid to have difficult conversations. They suffer in silence until their aggravation results in an attitude of “done”. At that point, growth and recovery are no longer an option. What if the leader would have just said what needed to be said in a professional way? What if the leader coached their employee? What potential greatness was lost because the leader remained silent? What relationship was lost because things were allowed to become contentious?

Don’t get me wrong. The responsibility of feedback does not lie solely on the shoulders of feedbackleaders. All members of an organization have a responsibility of providing feedback. I tell my staff all the time that I don’t want them just to say yes and agree to everything I say. I need their thoughts, their consideration of unintended consequences and problem-solving, their ability to piggyback and make the idea even better. I need to know if something I have done has made their job harder. Their feedback cannot always result in “their way” because as a leader I always have to consider the big picture for the organization. However, without their feedback, how do I grow? How do I become better for them?

With all of this said, the most growth is going to occur when feedback is professional. While angry feedback is still probably better than silence, it is still destructive. It takes a great deal of energy for those involved in angry feedback to get beyond the emotion and focus on growth again. It is possible, but again, often angry feedback is just the explosion that occurs after a prolonged silence where the feedback was bottled up too long.

If you are a part of a learning organization, here are some tips to defeat the deadly sound of silence:

  • Give feedback, in good times and bad. People you work with need to know. It’s way more efficient than guessing. Each individual’s background experiences may muddy the water of interpreting “silence”
  • Feedback should be a two-way street. Both the leader and members of the organization should give feedback so that everyone has a chance to grow.
  • While feedback is better than silence, sometimes you may need a moment to compose yourself. Don’t give feedback in the heat of the moment, but don’t wait too long either. Feedback should be timely and matters
  • Be specific. Say what you mean and mean what you say. The more specific you are with your feedback, the more likely you are to get what you need.
  • Don’t ever allow yourself to become so comfortable that feedback stops. At that point, so does growth. Today’s good is tomorrow’s mediocre.
  • If you are the leader, create venues for your organization to provide you with feedback. Surveys, exit tickets after professional learning or staff meetings, and Google docs are all great ways to collect feedback. While I’m not a huge fan of anonymous feedback (it can be as bad as silence in the fact it doesn’t provide an avenue for clarification), I recognize that sometimes you have to start their of those you lead don’t feel safe giving feedback. It is a starting place, but the leader should work diligently to build relationships and get people comfortable with feedback that is specific and individualized.

Yes, sometimes it is easier to be silent. Silence can punish those with whom we are upset. It can send the message “I don’t even care enough about you to acknowledge your existence”. However, it rarely results in growth for anyone. Feedback with a growth the-sound-of-silence-simon-garfunkel-8-638mindset takes both grit and grace. It takes the grit to put others’ need to grow before one’s personal comfort of staying silent. Even more, it takes grace to give feedback in a manner that others are willing to listen and hear the intended message so that growth can occur.

Additional Resources for Giving Feedback:

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