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Voice and Silence in

Workplace Conversations

AUTHOR

Tijs Besieux

DATE

05/01/2024

length

min read

In my recent article with Amy Edmondson, we offer a new framework to distinguish between productive and unproductive forms of both voice and silence. The framework’s four quadrants – withholding, disrupting, contributing and processing – outline essential activities in group conversations that work to advance goals, including organizational change. The framework suggests ways to improve the quality of workplace conversations. It emphasizes the role of leadership in fostering high-quality conversations, with an eye on both the opportunities and challenges of diversity at work.

Conversations at work are an arena of change. Through communication, change takes shape in people’s minds, influencing subsequent action in important ways. Unfortunately, conversations at work are frequently unsatisfying, unproductive, or both. If conversations are engines of change, then focusing on the quality of conversations is vital. Conversations can add value, as a direct function of what people choose to speak up about, what they hold back, and how effectively the group processes the ideas and information available. Most obviously, it is difficult for a group to process information that is not shared.

High-Quality Conversations: The Role of Psychological Safety and Leadership 

In our article, Amy and I reflect on the central role of conversations at work and what leaders can do to foster conversation quality. When decisions must be made, a group’s ability to engage thoughtfully to share and critique different views will influence its success (Argyris, 1994; Argyris & Schön, 1997; Schein, 1993, 2010). 

As most working adults recognize, holding back ideas that are underdeveloped or could possibly be seen as critical of superiors is commonplace. Holding back buys time and avoids the risk of rejection or looking foolish (Edmondson, 2003a).  

An extensive literature on employee voice identifies factors that contribute to this common patternAt the same time, research shows that companies suffer when people don’t share their ideas (e.g. Edmondson, 1996a, 2019; Moingeon & Edmondson, 1996). Psychological safety is a work climate factor that influences speaking up. Psychological safety has been defined as a belief that speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes is expected and feasible, and is best summarized as a sense of permission for candour (Edmondson, 1999, 2019).  

Yet despite awareness of the concept, misunderstanding remains – hindering many from undertaking the serious effort needed to make conversations work as they should.  

The Productive Conversation Matrix  

When psychological safety is low and employees hold back in meetings, the quality of both conversation and results is diminished (Bradley et al., 2012). Diversity of thought is reduced; brilliant ideas may be missed, and plans will not benefit from thoughtful debate. At worst, crucial information or critiques remain unshared, allowing a preventable major failure (Roberto et al., 2006). At best, valuable time, a precious human resource, is wasted by holding a meeting that adds little value. Yet, it seems equally problematic to envision a meeting with no holds barred, where everyone speaks up energetically without self-discipline, talking past each other, adding irrelevant points, or even getting into heated arguments that turn personal (Edmondson & Smith, 2006). 

Recognizing these possibilities, Amy and I map out four archetypes of participation modes in a conversation based on two dimensions: speaking up or remaining silent, and productive or unproductive contributions. The resulting four archetypes, which we call withholding, disrupting, contributing, and processing, are depicted in Figure 1. To facilitate productive voice (contributing) and productive silence (processing), leaders must understand the forces that contribute to each. 

Further, leaders can employ strategies to help minimize unproductive silence (withholding) and unproductive voice (disrupting). In developing this matrix, along with its recommendations, Amy and I build on long-standing research that demonstrates the vital importance of productive behaviours. For instance, research on boundary spanning communication conducted by Casciaro et al. (2019) highlights the importance of inquiry as a leadership skill for crossing corporate silos. Thoughtful inquiry is important and frequently asking open-ended questions helps normalizing speaking upThe productive conversation matrix complements these findings by including productive silence (processing) as an integral skill for leaders for leading effective meetings.

Leading Better Conversations  

The primary job of a leader is to engage talent to make good decisions. The aspiration is to ensure that everyone’s knowledge and experience are engaged – so that their diverse experiences and expertise can be integrated effectively. Good meetings happen when all participants are contributing and processing, with minimal withholding or disrupting. But for this to happen, conversations need leadership – whether gentle nudges or overt direction-setting. For example, a crucial principle is committing to listen – not just talk – in meetings. This requires us to distinguish mere silence from true listening to absorb and process what others are saying. Our core premise is that to promote productive behaviour and diminish unproductive behaviour, leaders must start with an appreciation of the distinctions in our matrix. Speaking up and silence can both be productive or problematic, depending on underlying intent and how it is enacted. In our original article, Amy and I provide recommendations for all four quadrant. In this blog post I’ll highlight ways to promote contributing.  

Promote Contributing 

Leaders are the ones who will stand up and speak when no one else is willing to speak up. –Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Peace Laureate, Liberian peace activist 

Productive voice means speaking up with relevant information, ideas, or opinions, to actively contribute to a conversation. It occurs when people make comments and give reactions in a way that reinforces the norm that candour is welcome. Contributing actively nurtures a climate of psychological safety and moves the conversation forward. A valuable way to do so is asking a question that helps a group dig more deeply into a topic or redirect a discussionA healthy mix of advocacy and inquiry makes for higher-quality discussions and better decisions (Argyris, 2002). 

Another crucial way to contribute is to offer a dissenting view – whether in a formal Devil’s Advocate role, explicitly helping the group guard against groupthink, or simply speaking up to offer a specific concern about a course of action (see Garvin & Roberto, 2001). In short, any speech act that is focused on the topic at hand, considers its possible impact on others’ willingness to also contribute, and is intended to help the group make progress counts as productive voice. Leaders have the opportunity to model and explicitly train people in the skills of productive dialogue. Chris Argyris (2002) explored how advocacy can be most constructive by deliberately voicing an opinion or idea in a way that clarifies the reasoning or provides examples to help others evaluate the contributionAdvocacy is more than just voicing your opinion; it is a process of thinking aloud that stimulates learning, and helps the group hone the insight outlined. Further, as Argyris noted, advocacy must be counterbalanced by inquiry to promote mutual learning (e.g. Tompkins, 2001). Advocacy and inquiry reciprocated produce constructive dialogue, in which ideas are exchanged and the process or implicit rules underlying the process are examined and improved (Edmondson, 1996b). This means challenging assumptions. Perhaps the most important way to encourage contributing is through inquiry – asking open-ended questions and valuing the input that ensues. Frequently asking questions normalizes speaking up and models the importance of thoughtful inquiry. Ensuring a mix of advocacy and inquiry, to produce what Argyris called double-loop learning is a powerful skill that can be taught to any type of team, whether a stable and cohesive unit that has been working together for over a decade or a newly-formed group of interdepartmental acquaintances (Edmondson, 2012).  

Another technique to encourage contributing is to reframe withholding as an act of disloyalty. Given the documented tendency for people at work to err on the side of holding back (Edmondson, 2019), silence needs to be labelled as something that is not valued by the company.

Speaking up and silence can both be productive or problematic, depending on underlying intent and how it is enacted. The intention of the Productive Conversation Matrix is to provide a framework that helps create workplace conversations that advance understanding, learning and task progress in order to contribute to organizational effectiveness.