Problem Two: Silence and Blindness

by Margaret Heffernan

Richard was keen, intelligent, curious, well read and overflowing with good intentions. Ask him about his direct reports, he could provide a fulsome picture of each one, and he demonstrated real insight and nuance about their strengths, weaknesses, hopes and dreams. He didn’t show it much, but he respected and cared for the people who worked for him.

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Because Richard was so brilliant, he could solve just about any gnarly problem. But doing so implied that he didn’t believe anyone else could. So one day I suggested that he attend his next meeting and promise to say nothing. He looked puzzled and not a little intimidated, but he promised. What happened?

At first, he said, when an issue arose, he noticed that everyone was waiting for him to solve it. But when he offered no solution, they all scrambled for a while and then proffered their own ideas. These were excellent. What had Richard learned?

“I found out,” he said, smiling, “that they expected me to have the answer.”

What else?

“That they had lots of their own answers. Some of them much better than mine.”

What else?

“That I don’t need to go to all the meetings,” he laughed. Long pause. “That it might be better if I didn’t go to all the meetings…”

Richard had discovered that, brilliant though he was, his power stifled the intelligence of his own team. They wanted to please him — and that, they thought, meant agreeing with him. His silence, or absence, liberated them to think for themselves.

One of the biggest traps of power is that the way that others respond to it. Most believe they get ahead by pleasing or, at least, not openly disagreeing. That means they contribute less than they might. This silence suppresses concerns; it also suppresses good ideas.

That they have this effect on people is something many powerful people fail to understand. I remember one CEO, whom I admired greatly, gnashing his teeth with frustration because his people so rarely stepped forward with ideas or initiatives. How did he explain it? He thought they just must be lazy. He himself had no insight into how, quite unconsciously, hierarchy silenced them.

At New York University’s Stern School of Business, Elizabeth Morrison and Elizabeth Milliken researched the phenomenon they call organizational silence. They found that the chief reasons for it are fear (of conflict or disagreement) and futility (I could say something, but it won’t make any difference, so why bother?) This exerts a high cost. Where power induces silence, it leaves decision-makers are blind. Think VW emissions or Boeing safety concerns. It also means many missed opportunities, invisible at the top but frequently obvious further down the hierarchy.

The desire to please, a fear of conflict and a pervasive sense that only the senior voices count: these beliefs aren’t entirely irrational, so they have to be addressed. In recent years, it’s been fashionable to talk about the need to create a culture of psychological safety, to ensure that people speak up. Safety is crucial. But it’s often impossible to achieve in an age of high unemployment, of layoffs, downsizing and automation. In that context, anyone carrying a high level of personal debt (a mortgage) is already unsafe, and it’s obtuse to belittle or ignore it. That makes it all the important to find mechanisms where people can see for themselves that it’s safe to be open.

After the poor decision-making that led to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, President Kennedy radically rethought how to develop real honesty and the widest range of options from his advisors. He asked multiple teams to tackle the same question with the same information. He used skip-level meetings so that the more junior diplomats and analysts could debate freely with their peers, something they’d never have done with their bosses present. This ensured that Kennedy had more perspectives and ideas to consider.

When Britain’s National Health Service was plagued with a number of scandals that derived from multiple, often minor, failures that most feared to articulate, nurse Helene Donnelly became an ambassador for cultural change at the Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Partnership NHS Trust. She isn’t a boss per se — that helps — but her role is to hear concerns that hospital staff have been unable to get addressed or that they are afraid to raise. She told me that the most important part of her job is to write up the story of how each problem really does get fixed. Positive action is what persuades people not to stay silent.

Why don’t bosses perceive the problem that power confers? Many tell me that they don’t feel themselves to be different. They are, they insist, just ordinary people doing tough jobs. The answer is naïve and inadequate. It’s foolish to imagine that how you see yourself is how others see you. And having power confers the responsibility to understand how it works. Like a weapon or a car, just having it requires insight, control and finesse.

Three Problems of Power:

Pt 1: Pleasing

Pt 3: Distance and Dehumanization

CEO of 5 businesses, her book WILFUL BLINDNESS was called a classic; her TED talks have been seen by over 12 million people. UNCHARTED is her new book.

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