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Silence is easily misread: Mum’s not the word

The expression “Mum’s the word” has nothing to do with maternity, nor even with preserving familial values. It comes from the older English meaning of ‘mum’ as silence: when we ‘keep Mum’ it’s our lips we keep together, not our nuclear family. But not speaking out – despite the apparent wisdom of another familiar adage about it being better to be thought stupid than to open your mouth and prove it – is not necessarily synonymous with wisdom. Sometimes ‘it’ – whatever it might be – actually does need saying.

Indeed, this was one of the themes that emerged during the questions to presenters and the table conversations at our recent BAFTA Breakfast Meeting, where a reluctance to speak out or to ask questions was seen as often being a symptom of a dysfunctional organisational culture. And a symptom, moreover, that can express itself in more than one way:

  • Not speaking out or asking questions because a perception that doing so could leave the speaker tagged as ‘difficult’ or ‘awkward’
  • A collective failure to point out an increasingly obvious ‘elephant in the room’ – an operational or cultural failure that didn’t bode well but reflected something held as unquestionable
  • A simple failure to point at something ludicrous and have the courage to say ‘But that’s daft’.

While we are familiar with the idea that silence can speak volumes, we can sometimes ignore the point that fantasy writer Alfred Attanasio made when he wrote that:

Silence is a text easy to misread.”

Perhaps it’s their great focus on words and communication, but other writers have made valuable observations about silence. Take, for example, Alice Walker:

No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.”

An organisational culture may not be as blatantly draconian as to demand silence, but it can certainly encourage specific topics – or specific speakers – to remain pretty heavily muted. And an environment that discourages speaking out cannot avoid discouraging something else that is just as important: listening. As one of our BAFTA event’s speakers pointed out, we cannot engage with something that we do not understand: inhibiting communication is rarely healthy.

Not only does such a culture or atmosphere do nothing to stop problems from being swept under metaphorical carpets, it also stands in the way of the development of trust and openness. Without communication, learning to understand each other is something of a lost cause – and perhaps only the first of a subsequent string.

Another writer made a different but equally valid point:

Silence is the most perfect expression of scorn.”
George Bernard Shaw

And perhaps we could add other nouns to the end of Mr Shaw’s sentence. ‘Disengagement’, perhaps. Or ‘mistrust’ and its friend, ‘suspicion’. If the real prize asset of the organisation actually is the people, the organisation should recognise that they come complete with something beyond their knowledge, skills and talent: their voices. And that the opportunity to use them is an important element in building and maintaining their engagement.

Equally, organisational leaders need to remember two important lessons about communication. The first is that delivering effective and lasting organisational change requires not just tenacity – although that is undeniably an important ingredient – but ears: the plan that is most likely to succeed is one that is sufficiently flexible to listen as progress is made, and to adjust course as necessary along the way.

The second is to avoid not just silence (or its tacit encouragement), but to avoid platitudes. Best described as saying something while actually saying nothing, a better counsel against the lure of the platitude might come from Ambrose Pierce and his still timely Devil’s Dictionary, where you’ll find the following definition:

DULLARD, n. A member of the reigning dynasty in letters and life. The Dullards came in with Adam, and being both numerous and sturdy have overrun the habitable world. The secret of their power is their insensibility to blows; tickle them with a bludgeon and they laugh with a platitude.”

The problem with platitudes is that they ultimately don’t achieve anything, and that they therefore slowly erode truth. And, perhaps more worryingly, that they incrementally draw attention to what is being kept confidential. And if everything stays confidential, what finally gets said?

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