The Ambiguous Sounds of Silence: Why You Should Ask for Input
If you work in an open-plan office where nonstop noise is the norm, you probably relish periods of silence. But silence may not be altogether golden when members of a team are trying to reach agreement, resolve an issue, or make a decision. In this setting, silence is often taken to mean that those who haven’t voiced an opinion approve of the matter under discussion. Yet they may very well not.
This is something to be aware of if you’re the one who interprets someone else’s silence as consent. In trivial situations, this interpretation may be just fine; not every situation warrants extended discussion or input by every team member. But when decisions can have major consequences, interpreting someone else’s silence as agreement can be risky.
If you’re the one who’s been silent, you should also be aware of this. That is, if you have an objection, doubt, or alternative perspective that you haven’t voiced, other team members may interpret your silence to mean I’m with you on this. If they proceed and things then go poorly, don’t expect to say “I told you so” because you didn’t tell them so!
Instead of interpreting silence about a given decision as agreement, teams can offer opportunities for everyone to voice their views. One way is to invite everybody to submit concerns in writing. Another is to poll participants; with this approach, people who tend to remain silent are more likely to express any reservations they have. I recall a project team that was ready to act on a decision until one quiet team member, when polled, described a key consideration they’d overlooked. With a palpable sense of relief, they all marched back to the drawing board.
Some teams use “thumbs up, down, or sideways” as a polling technique. Thumbs up means “I agree with the decision and fully support it.” Thumbs sideways means “I have some concerns or reservations, but I’ll support the decision.” Thumbs down means “I can’t support this decision” and generally opens the plan back up for discussion.
Things would be simpler if people who had concerns simply spoke up. But many remain silent because they don’t want to make waves, create conflict, impede progress, or face potential repercussions for speaking out. When no one speaks up because no one else has spoken up, the result is groupthink. And let us not forget the great management parable about the trip to Abilene, in which a family takes a long car trip on a miserably hot day. None of them wanted to go, but each one assumed the others were in favor because they hadn’t said otherwise.
Sometimes, the simplest solution to silence is to ask those who haven’t said much, “What do you think?” So much better than endless miles in a stifling car (or on a stifling project)!