Organisational silence: when is it a culture problem?

What is a culture of silence and how can organisations break this silence?

Organisational research supports the view that voice as a behaviour is often sensitive to situational contexts that either promote or prohibit voice. But at the same time, employees remain silent and do not feel comfortable speaking up when something wrong happens. This can be because of an organisational culture of silence. As explained in a Harvard Business Review article, organisational culture and workplace norms are often to blame when employees don’t speak up against unacceptable workplace practices and safety violations. Often employee silence is quite common in some organisational contexts where there are unequal power relationships between employee and employers, abuse of power or perceived organisational politics.

This resonates with some of our own research with complex organisations. Rapid Context’s research on organisational culture and workplace climate over a decade also confirms that it is often not easy for employees to break the silence on unacceptable workplace behaviour and abusive practices such as bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination because silence becomes part of an organisational culture. There is often a tendency for organisations to sugar-coat a workplace issue or simply blame it on a ‘few bad apples’ rather than address deep-rooted cultural problems.

Some common themes that accompany a culture of silence that have emerged from our conversations with senior managers, employees, employers and relevant stakeholders across different sectors and industries, include:

Our research across different organisations and sectors often examines the particular workplace context, culture and climate that drives workplace behaviours as well as organisational norms and practices that define a workplace.

Through Rapid Context’s approach to rigorous research and policy analysis, we have seen how workplace cultures change in complex organisations when employee well-being is built on a strong culture of ethics that not only promotes employee safety but also encourages them to speak up. Our research is now providing valuable insights into organisational culture with practical recommendations that embed a strong culture of engagement through:

  • Better understanding the concerns and issues that affect employees.

  • Sustaining the engagement with employees that effectively reflect the different needs of all employees.

  • Reviewing policies and practices that support employee engagement.

  • Effective management of talent and people that focuses on retention and staff engagement.

If your organisation is being negatively affected by a ‘culture of silence’ and you want to gain a deeper understanding of your organisational context, organisational climate or simply to embark on your own cultural journey built on a culture of voice and not silence, then get in touch with us. Through our new program, Rapid Connect, we work closely with organisations to help them effectively engage with their employee needs and offer tailored solutions and support programs.

Priya Chattier is a senior research consultant with Rapid Context. She has expertise in qualitative research design, mixed-methods, survey design, applied social research in gender, and monitoring and evaluation. Extensive research experience on gender issues in the South Pacific region, including Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Papua New Guinea, including field experience in diverse and marginalised communities in remote islands.

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