Silence Is Not Golden

What is the relationship between a medical procedure, a quote from a printing company, and a typical work meeting? Steve Simpson argues that ‘silence’ is the bond between these experiences – and it’s not golden…

I’d like to share three scenarios – as the reader, see if you can decipher what these apparently diverse scenarios have in common…

Scenario 1: Recently, I had a medical check-up where a specialist was using a sophisticated device to check a lump on my neck. With a nurse present, the specialist applied the device in silence.

Scenario 2: I went to our local printer to get a quote for artwork. After explaining what I needed, he said he would get back to me with a quote. I waited… and waited. After one week, I rang enquiring as to what was happening with the quote. The printer was extremely apologetic, and said the business had been very busy. He would get back to me shortly.

After another week, I called again, now angry at the non-response. I finally got my quote a day or two after that second phone call – more than two weeks after leaving the job with them.

Scenario 3: At a meeting, a boss recommends a change to the way things are done. There is a little discussion, after which the boss says, “So, do I take it we can proceed?” – no one speaks out against the idea, so the boss takes it as agreed.

So, what do these three scenarios have in common?

Silence – and it’s not golden.

During my medical check-up, the specialist used the device on my neck for quite some time. While doing this, he said nothing, other than making some medical comments to the nurse who was present. The longer this silence continued, the more concerned I became. After what seemed an eternity, the specialist finally talked  – and he explained that he could find no problem – the lump seemed to be related to a muscular problem.

The silence from my printer was an all-too-common business event – how many of us as customers are greeted with a wall of silence after promises a business will get back to us?

Recently, I interviewed a leader who had used our UGRs® (Unwritten Ground Rules) concept to implement improvements to the organisation’s culture. 

According to this manager, one of the key changes central to his success was on the issue of silence at meetings. He discussed with his people the notion that from now on, silence at meetings implied consent – it was no longer good enough to remain silent at a meeting, while arguing against the idea outside the meeting. 

This was introduced at the same time as efforts were put in place to ensure there were minimal ramifications for speaking out against the prevailing view.

These are three examples of silence not being ‘golden’. As customers, we need to be kept fully informed during the buying process.

And as leaders, we need to think carefully about silence and how it plays out on our teams. Too often, silence is used as a proxy for disagreement – and if this is the case, dangerous consequences can follow.