Turns out it’s not what you’re doing—but what you’re not doing—that’s impacting your bottom line the most. According to new research by HBR and VitalSmarts, a “culture of silence” — wherein employees and leaders feel that they cannot give voice to the problems they see — wastes the most precious resources any organization has: time, money & social capital.

What’s the Problem?

Research shows that, while we hypothetically believe we would speak out against a perceived wrongdoing, when push comes to shove we tend to remain silent. For example, researchers asked a group what they would do if someone cut them in line. While most said that they would promptly ask them to move to the back, when researchers observed these participants being cut in line, only 1 out of 25 actually said something to the cutter.

In terms of organizational silence, some industries are more challenged than others. For example, in healthcare, 90% of nurses don’t speak up to a physician even when they believe a patient’s wellbeing is at risk (Maxfield, 2016.) Furthermore 93% of people say their organization is at risk of an accident waiting to happen because people are unwilling or unable to speak up.

The average employee wastes 7 days complaining to others, doing unnecessary work, ruminating about the problem, or getting angry.

What Do We Stay Silent About?

  • Disrespectful Colleagues: Silence in the face of rude or abrasive coworkers (Example: bullying, harassment, resistance to feedback)
  • Strategic Hurdles: Failure to speak out when one sees faulty logic in planning or proposals
  • Work Outcomes: Failure to speak out when a coworker submits sub-par work, performs with incompetence or displays unengaged behaviors
  • The Boss: Silence in the midst of a boss who uses their power to control others or uses their position to push an agenda
  • Unclear Roles: Failure to seek clarification when confusion arises around roles, responsibilities, timelines and expectations

What’s the Impact on Your Bottomline?

  • The average employee wastes 7 days complaining to others, doing unnecessary work, ruminating about the problem, or getting angry. 40% of respondents say they waste 14 days or more.
  • The average employee estimates the cost of silence is $7,500. 20% of respondents estimated the cost at more than $50k.

What’s the Solution?

  • Weigh the Risks: Consider the risks of not speaking up, rather than the consequences of voicing your concern.
  • Use Nonviolent Communication: Rather than approaching the person or topic of interest with anger and disgust, first move through your own emotions about the situation. Check out our step-by-step guide to having a difficult conversation.
  • Safety First: When you start a conversation by stating your positive intentions, you immediately strip the listener or their defensiveness.