The winter holiday madness is about to explode, and people everywhere are looking forward to an abundance of festivities. There await feasts, gift exchanges, themed parties, family gatherings, and big movie premiers. Perhaps no other upcoming film this season has sparked more excitement than “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Apart from its unrivaled popularity as a sweeping space opera, the Star Wars saga also incorporates political parable — a tale of rampant despotism and its eventual downfall. Of course, on some level, it’s also part business allegory, featuring a tyrannical organization ruled by fear and hobbled by the culture of silence it’s created. So instead of trying to unravel the secrets Luke Skywalker may be hiding in his robes, let’s explore the dark side of silent business cultures.
Working in an Empire’s Silent Workforce Culture
On December 15, diehard fans of the Star Wars franchise will experience a pivotal and revealing chapter in the main storyline. On the surface, the epic recounts a fairly straightforward morality tale. There are powerful villains who seek to control the galaxy. They are opposed by rebels who fight to restore a former democracy. However, I think there’s a more nuanced message. As a business metaphor, many of the plot devices mirror our own corporate universe.
- An older group of powerbrokers struggles to maintain its grasp over a world becoming more diverse, as evidenced by the myriad interplanetary creatures inhabiting the galaxy, who are building their own trade syndicates and enterprises.
- Older generations are being overtaken by a booming youth demographic; these talented young individuals are emerging as strong, charismatic and popular leaders.
- Rule over the enterprise shifts away from team orientation to encompass a more autocratic approach, where dissent and the free expression of ideas are punished.
- Fear and conformity spread as the primary strategies for promoting order. Eventually, a culture of silence blossoms, stifling progress and giving rise to chaos.
Darth Vader, the enforcer of the Emperor, is also a victim of this toxic environment. He didn’t join the Empire to advance evils designs. He believed the politicians of the era had become corrupt, and the only way to ensure peace was through a more centralized management structure. However, he too adopted a “following orders” stance to protect his position. Fear-based management appeals to self-preservation. It does not, however, fuel innovation or evolution. It necessarily champions a status quo.
The Force Spreads to New Generations
Every Star Wars fan knows how the original storyline ended. People overcame their fears and left the Empire, settling habitats outside Empire-controlled territories. A new breed of talent rose up to forge their own destinies and challenge archaic models. And eventually, the Empire found itself destroyed from within.
Today, those narratives could symbolize the growing dissatisfaction of Millennials, their embrace of free agency and the global trends of rising entrepreneurialism. It’s no secret that small, tech savvy startups are competing with large companies, applying unexpected amounts of pressure. They are not only threatening established empires of business, they are beginning to erode them. How? Different thinking, open communications, team-based initiatives, diversity of perspectives, breaking traditions, taking risks and even experimenting with holacratic operations. They have conquered fear and resistance to change.
As the Jedi Master Yoda famously warned his apprentices, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
In Cultures of Silence, Growth Quietly Fades
In a Harvard Business Review feature, David Maxfield wrote about how silent business cultures eat away at the workplace. “Most people think they will speak up when something negative happens at work, but few actually do,” he observes, citing a recent survey he performed with managers and employees across various organizations.
In one study, workers had discovered fatal flaws in an important project plan. However, the oppressive culture — and threat of reprisals for speaking out — led team members to only whisper about the issues among themselves. This went on for several months as managers pushed the implementation. The result? “The organization fell behind on its output goals and didn’t have the data it needed to forecast projected outcomes.”
In another example, the president and CEO of a business suddenly passed away. In dealing with their grief and disruption, executives never addressed the issues on an organizational scope. Instead, as they grappled with the responsibilities of running the company, they merely informed talent that everything would be business as usual.
As one manager confessed: “Because we didn’t reach out to ease employees’ worries and fears we created an atmosphere of anxiety (i.e., ‘Will the company survive?’ ‘Is my job secure?’, ‘What’s going on?’ etc.) which ultimately led to nearly 25% of our staff leaving within six months of the CEO’s passing.”
These aren’t minor situations. To put the consequences of silence into a more compelling context, consider these workplace reactions to aggressive or threatening management.
- In another study conducted by Maxfield, 90 percent of nurses admitted to not speaking up to physicians when they knew a patient’s safety was at risk.
- In accident-prone settings, such as manufacturing plants or warehouses, Maxfield’s team discovered that 93 percent of workers who detected safety hazards said nothing to management, because they were “either unwilling or unable to speak up.”
The High Cost of a Silent Workforce Culture
Across Maxfield’s survey group, he found an alarming prevalence of suppression and wasted productivity because of mandated silence and conformity. Rather than expressing meaningful concerns or recommendations for improvements, respondents complained to peers (78 percent), performed additional or unnecessary work (66 percent), wasted hours stewing over the situation instead of focusing on their tasks (53 percent), or became angry (50 percent).
There are costs associated with creating a hostile or oppressive work culture. As Maxfield concludes in his research:
The hit to the bottom line is even more remarkable. The average person estimated the cost of silence at $7,500, and 20% of our sample estimated the cost of avoiding a difficult conversation to be more than $50,000. Our subjects described ways that silence damages employee engagement, relationships, deadlines, budgets, and culture. Given that the fact that every one of our subjects identified at least one costly example, we concluded that it’s likely that every employee in your organization is adding to the cumulative organizational cost of silence eating away at your bottom line.
Changing to a Communicative Culture
The positive news is that business cultures can be changed. The first step is identifying the cause of the communication breakdowns. Maxfield distilled the results of his data into five main categories. The next step is to instill a new dynamic that welcomes dialog. To do that, we need to consider the risks to our businesses when our trusted employees don’t interact with us. Here are some immediate steps concerned business leaders can take to ensure that they are building cultures of communication, not empires of stillness.
Changing Your Management Approach
- Engage in honest, self-aware and humble discussions about the needs and concerns of your talent. Help your people focus on finding opportunities in existing challenges.
- Lead by example and visibly work to help build a community that serves the needs of the mission, not individual managers or executives.
- Set expectations and send talent a clear message about their importance; highlight the power of their roles, their duties and their performance.
- Coach talent and constructively critique areas for improvement, while championing the development of perspective-taking and problem-solving behaviors in a safe environment.
- Express gratitude for jobs well done, making sure that this appreciation and recognition is publicly acknowledged.
Addressing and Resolving Existing Issues
Changing our behaviors, approaches and attitudes can work wonders in restoring morale and receptive discussions with talent. However, to evolve a faltering business culture, we must still resolve the existing issues our workers face. Here are some strategies, based on Maxfield’s findings.
- Confront rude, abrasive, disrespectful or bullying colleagues. When management lets these incidents slide, people tend to withhold information, feedback and input — all essential elements in driving company competitiveness and growth.
- At the initial stages of projects or initiatives, hold open meetings with team members and encourage them to point out strategic missteps, such as inaccuracies or detrimental flaws in proposals, policies or project plans. Failures occur only when leadership makes decisions unilaterally, without consulting the experts in the workforce, or when managers are unresponsive to feedback from those experts.
- Uncomfortable though it may be, managers must address talent who exhibit poor work habits, incompetence or lack of engagement. Otherwise, high-performing employees will quickly lose interest and move on to a company with a more supportive culture, leaving your organization with substandard or disengaged workers.
- Corporate leaders need to correct or replace abusive managers who rely on control and rank to push their own agendas — not the mission of the organization.
- Always strive to seek clarification with workers when they feel uncertain about their duties, responsibilities, deadlines and more. “A perceived lack of safety to share concerns without retribution makes asking for clarification feel risky,” Maxfield explained.
A New Hope
Although we as business leaders would love to build a lucrative empire, we must do so with the endorsement and inclusion of the talent who make it all possible. If Star Wars teaches us anything about best practices, it’s that fear and iron fists pave the way to dissolution. Instead of ruling over cultures of silence, where the seeds of rebellion and rogue behaviors are planted, let’s create a new hope — a team that flourishes and upholds our universal mission.