Sitting in a large number of meetings – as academics do – I have been intrigued by the frequency of individuals remaining silent, and not expressing their views on issues, even to the point of listening to uncomfortable silences. I’ve been sensitive to this, since from my earliest memories of being a student sitting in classes, I was one of those who could not stay silent, trying to respond to questions whether or not I had a knowledgeable response. Perhaps everyone has a psychological disposition to be more comfortable remaining silent or in expressing themselves, and I’m sure this varies cross-culturally and across meetings. There are meetings when I am the only person speaking and meetings in which I cannot get a word in edgewise.
Clearly, some business pundits, such as Kevin Eikenberry, view silence in meetings as functional and often positive, such as by giving individuals time to think. Others see silence in meetings as a consequence of the speaker or the chair – not the problem of the audience. I’ll get back to the functional value of silence below.
That said, I cannot help but think that silence in meetings is a political strategy – conscious or not. This is not my area, as I am not focused on interpersonal communication, but some cursory search suggests that very little research has been done on the interpersonal functions of silence. While under-researched, others such as Richard Johannesen (1974), have identified this as a topic in need of more systematic research – apparently to little effect.
Ambiguity. In politics, silence is often read as a lack of support. If politicians do not express their support for their leadership, for example, it is generally assumed that they are opposed, or at least not supportive. Alternatively, in many meetings and in interpersonal communication, silence is often read as a sign of deference – as if one is listening or thinking about what was said. Of course, the degree that silence could be read as supportive or oppositional suggests that it is a safe position. Others can read what they want to read in silence, but not be able to prove their case, leaving the silent in a more ambiguous position. And ambiguity is good in politics.
Time Delay. In addition, silence and the ambiguity it creates will enable individuals to take more time to decide on their response. If you can wait to express your views, you can take a more politically acceptable position.
Private Flexibility. Silence in public also permits multiple positions in private. One can tell the proponents and opponents of a particular idea that they support their position.
So this ambiguity, strategic delay, and private flexibility make silence golden in the interpersonal politics of meetings. But is it constructive for the group or institution?
Here I think the idea that every organization needs idea generators, idea killers, and idea maintainers to innovate provides with a different take. I like this idea, and believe it could be applied to meetings as well. The problem is that those who remain silent are neither generating ideas, killing ideas, or maintaining them. This is okay if silence gives space to those who generate, kill, or maintain new ideas. But if too many remain silent, this could be dysfunctional for the meeting, and the organization.
Others have argued a stronger case against silence, with Leslie A. Perlow and Stephanie Williams suggesting that silence could be killing companies, finding that:
“But it is time to take the gilt off silence. Our research shows that silence is not only ubiquitous and expected in organizations but extremely costly to both the firm and the individual. Our interviews with senior executives and employees in organizations ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 corporations to government bureaucracies reveal that silence can exact a high psychological price on individuals, generating feelings of humiliation, pernicious anger, resentment, and the like that, if unexpressed, contaminate every interaction, shut down creativity, and undermine productivity.”
My sense is that they are right to challenge conventional wisdom on the value of silence. Silence might well be politically strategic for individuals, but potentially not strategic for group or organizational innovation. So if you want to be politically safe, and organizationally conservative, if not deadly, then sit on your hands and hold your tongue.
Johannesen, Richard L. (1974), ‘The Functions of Silence: A Plea for Communication Research’, Western Speech, 38 (1): http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/10570317409373806?needAccess=true
Perlow, Leslie A., and Williams, Stephanie (2003), ‘Is Silence Killing Your Company?‘, Harvard Business Review, May.