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'Silence is golden, but sometimes it's just plain yella'

Posted on 2 September, 2019 at 20:50

Image by Robin Higgins from Pixabay

A good friend once quoted her Mum to me "Silence is golden, but sometimes it's just plain yella", I loved the quote so much that it lives permanently on my office whiteboard.

Is what looks like an amiable culture really just a culture of suffering in silence for some workplaces? Am I a coward if I don't speak up, am I an aggressor if I do? Everyone in a workplace needs to feel safe to raise an issue, confident that it will be received well and/or handled appropriately without needing to shout about it or feel that they are out of line. It is wired in us…people won’t be honest and speak up about what is important to them unless they feel safe to do so.

I started my working life with a ten-year career in hospitality and for us communication training was a constant. Back then (and it is a while ago), the industry knew that communication was the key to good service both for internal and external customers. So, what's changed? Communication skills training is rarely seen within a suite of compliance training — yet, open and easy communication is the foundation to comfortable workplace cultures.

We all have our own style of communication (and our own communication strengths and weaknesses), when not facilitating I am an observer, I like to sit quietly and take in the room. I appreciate opportunities to keep my silence before I speak as I believe that everyone has opinions and most have merit, I like to hear and consider the perspectives of others. My communication style does not suit every situation, if I just observe without speaking does my silence become 'yella'? There is nothing wrong with silence unless by my silence I am turning my back on important issues or breaching my duty of care to my workmates.

So how do I tell the difference between golden silence and cowardice? I take note of how I feel, there is a big difference between the desire of wanting to speak but not feeling able to and quiet contemplation. When I am ready to use my voice do I know it will be heard. Am I choosing my silence over someone else’s safety? Could my words unintentionally cause harm — sometimes, for me, the gold is simply taking an extra moment to choose my words before I open my mouth.

What is the culture like in your workplace? Is everyone safe and supported to speak up? Does your organisation encourage perspectives and opinions, or do they squash voices and innovation by not allowing participation? If your peers do not speak up are they cowards, or are they simply doing their best to keep themselves safe.

You can't fix a culture of bad communication by simply posting a memo saying; 'our door is always open, please speak up' or by introducing a new communication policy — there is no instant quick fix. Improving the communication (or any cultural issues) takes time and effort, the memo and policy are a good start but are meer tokens if you don't walk the talk. Walk around your workplace, what do you notice? Be an active consumer of your environment, is there a comfortable vibe? If there is silence is it comfortable, awkward or bubbling with resentment? do people go out of their way to engage with others. Is everyone encouraged to have their say and when people talk do others listen respectfully without judgement. If you’re not happy with the culture you see, don’t put your head in the sand or ‘wait for the right time’.

You may be just one of many in a workplace, but your workplace culture is your responsibility just as much as everyone else. Your input, your voice and your ears are powerful tools that contribute to the culture that you want, and are willing to accept. The time to stand up, take responsibility and make changes is right now.

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