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Optimum Talks Blog

Stop the Stigma | Chapter 7: Silence from employees may not be a good thing

by Sandra Boyd + Dr. Bill Howatt
February 17, 2021


The Scenario

A privately-held company with about 800 employees had to go through lots of changes and take on many operational challenges since COVID began. The company is known for its scrappy culture that is aligned to the owner’s style. He is tough, hard-working, and in good times often demonstrates he cares. However, in hard times his approach to day-to-day business changes. He becomes more intense and demonstrates less empathy towards employees. His impulse control becomes, for the most part, non-existent. He is known for his rants and speaking out loud about his concerns.

The owner’s approach to leading people is well known. He is OK to push people as hard as possible and pay the least amount to keep employees. The leadership philosophy he promotes daily is, “You know that when it comes to employees, no news is good news.” His belief is when employees are quiet and not raising concerns, everything is going well. This style was adopted by his senior leadership team who knew how he reacted to bad news, so they protected him from it.

COVID and changes to keep the operation open resulted in many employees becoming upset about new procedures and policies, especially the return-to-office policy, to the point some of the most talented players threatened to leave. Many senior leaders were becoming aware of the problem and risk to the organization.

But because the owner had created the expectation that he did not want to hear any complaining, and no news is good news, this trained the senior leadership team to adopt the approach to withhold bad news. Luckily for the firm, the owner’s son, who was recently out of college and started to work for the organization, quickly discovered how his father’s wake shaped the culture. He was the only one who felt confident to confront him to challenge his assumption that silence is good news. He pushed his father to create a new expectation and welcome both good and bad news, but he was unsure where to start.

Leadership Lens

Imagine if 20% of your employees stopped performing or left your organization, all because a leader does not want to listen or because they are stuck in a belief set that says no news is good news. How would that impact your organization, and what would it cost? Would employees feel there is no use in speaking up, even if there was a serious problem? And would they subsequently feel stifled and be under so much stress that they would suffer from presenteeism, anxiety, or burnout? When employees have no voice, they lose purpose, disengage, and do not perform.

According to Harvard Medical School’s Helen Riess, a key component of empathetic leadership is active listening. To be a successful leader during this time, you need to be empathetic and engaged in active listening, not just to hear what is going wrong but also any innovative ideas and solutions that might be offered. Success during a pandemic requires more than just good leadership; it requires engaged employees who feel they can contribute to the business and have an impact.

Behavioural Science Lens

In the above case, silence is the enemy of good. It is a symptom of disengagement. Gallup estimates that each disengaged employee costs the company around $2,246 annually. Because of this owner’s lack of understanding of the importance of feedback, this organization now metaphorically has a hole in its hull that is bringing on a level of duplicity that if not addressed could put its viability at risk.

Collaborative culture starts at the top. Though taking a business idea from a napkin to a thriving business with hundreds of employees is a major accomplishment, this growth happened only because the people involved in building the organization were aligned to the owner’s vision of what the culture would be.

One constant for any business is change and the need to adapt and be flexible, whether it wants to or not. Change requires not only setting direction but also engaging employees to get their support and confidence to buy-in. A lack of employee buy-in can negatively impact the organization’s potential and sustainability. Therefore, leaders need to develop good interpersonal leadership skills so they can stay plugged into the employee experience. Since senior leaders’ behaviours shape culture, to reduce risk, they must be open to discover how their leadership philosophy may have both positive and negative consequences.

What you can do:

  • Open feedback channels: Be intentional on how employees’ regular feedback will be obtained above and beyond surveys or pulse checks. Create both active and passive options for employees to provide feedback confidentially and non-confidentially to senior leadership and the owner. Without facts, it is hard to make good plans. In the above case, if the owner begins to make investments based on flawed numbers and workforce capacity, this can quickly put the organization at risk.
  • Be realistic and expect complaints: An employer will never be able to keep all their employees happy. However, being realistic as to what can be done to create a culture that employees enjoy working in requires intention and focus. It begins with setting clear expectations on culture, values, and communications. There will be few times in a culture open to feedback that there is not some degree of employee concern. When a few months go by or in a crisis like COVID there is silence, be open to the possibility that other factors, like fear, may be driving silence.


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Missed other chapters of this series? Read them now!

Stop the Stigma | Chapter 5: Mental Health Danger Zone 2021

Stop the Stigma | Chapter 6: Is this the start of an employee rebellion?


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