Leadership, Workplace Culture

6 Reasons Teams Stay Silent in Meetings

You’ve hired a great team.
You know that the people sitting around the table have the experience, expertise, and credentials to consistently knock it out of the park.
Individually, every member is an “A” player.
On paper, this should be a dream team.

But there’s a problem.

Every time you get the team together to hash through a thorny problem, brainstorm ideas, or plan for the future… silence.

Nothing but crickets

You expect electricity and fireworks, but you’re struggling to get a spark.

Sure, a couple people try to speak up (the same ones as always), but the dialogue sputters and quickly dies as everyone waits for you, the leader, to chime in and give the last word.

You know they have ideas.  You know they certainly don’t agree with everything you’re saying.  Why do they stay silent?

Is it your leadership?  Is it them?  Did you not hire the right people after all?

At some point, you resign yourself to this reality and adapt the best you can.  You fill the gaps with your own voice.  You shorten the meetings (or stop calling them altogether).  You make decisions without their input.  You settle for hearing basic reports on each person’s area.  You sell your own ideas rather than co-creating new ones.  You start accepting silence as agreement and charge ahead on initiatives, hoping you have people’s support.

But this isn’t how a healthy team functions and you know it.

This scenario plays itself out in countless meeting spaces every day, and the consequences are tangible.

What’s at Stake?

  • New ideas struggle to make it into the open
  • Bad ideas go uncontested
  • Mistakes are hidden and learning opportunities are lost
  • Initiatives falter because of hidden resistance
  • Collaboration is stifled as people retreat into their own silos

Silence is a subtle and dangerous phenomenon on a team.  When we notice it as leaders, little alarm bells should be going off in our heads.  The longer it takes for us to address it, the worse it will get.

The first step is understanding why it happens.

We cannot simply ask people to speak up in the midst of an unhealthy environment, without first addressing the underlying issues that exist.

Why Does My Team Stay Silent?

While it’s tempting, and convenient, to simply blame the individuals on our team, to stay silent is often a response to conditions that live outside of that person.  In other words, silence is not the root problem; it’s a symptom.  It’s a natural reaction to deeper issues that exist on the team.

We cannot simply ask people to speak up in the midst of an unhealthy environment, without first addressing the underlying issues that exist.

Common reasons employees stay silent include:

1. Avoiding Social Harm

Speaking up feels like risk to our brains.  Saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person could lead to feelings of embarrassment, insecurity, exclusion, or foolishness.  While these emotions are uncomfortable in and of themselves, it is the accompanying loss of social status that is the root fear.  To our primitive brain, social pain is as real and as threatening as physical pain.  The neural circuitry for both experiences overlap, causing the same threat response – fight, flight, or freeze – to be triggered when we sense risk for either our physical or social wellbeing.

Our brain equates belonging with safety and exclusion with danger.

If speaking up may create distance between us and members of our group, we will inevitably hesitate and may stay silent.  Even more so if that distance is between us and someone that we perceive as an important or powerful member of the group (e.g. the boss).  Harming a relationship with a superior could cause you to silently be left out of the inner circle, resulting in loss of access to information and people, land leaving you out of informal decision-making.

2. Avoiding Tangible Consequences

Apart from social harm, speaking up can have very practical consequences in a workplace.  If you’re labeled as overly critical, resistant to new ideas, or incompetent, you may be less likely to be considered for promotions, new opportunities, or pay increases.

Consider a typical scenario:  You make a mistake or experience a failure (because you’re human).  Do you keep it behind closed doors, or do you talk about it openly with your team so that you can learn from the experience?  What if admitting it hurts the team’s metrics and affects bonuses, or show ups negatively on your annual performance review as “not meeting expectations”?  Well, you’ll probably stay silent.  In this case, there are systems in place that actively disincentivize speaking up.

Speaking up always comes with a level of social risk, and it’s not worth it to take that risk if your words don’t feel like they’re making an impact.
3. Futility

People in a group may stay silent because they don’t believe that their voice is valued.  If they’ve shared ideas or feedback in the past and they were dismissed, ignored, or not considered, it feels pointless to do it again.   Speaking up always comes with a level of social risk, and it’s not worth it to take that risk if your words don’t feel like they’re making an impact.

As former Apple exec, Jony Ive, says, “Ideas are fragile” – when people share them, we have to tread lightly and be careful not to snuff them out too quickly.

4. Ambiguity

Sometimes we don’t speak up in a group simply because we’re not sure if we should.  We may think it’s not our place to provide feedback or suggest an idea.  In other words, lack of clarity in the group regarding roles, decision rights, or working agreements will cause us to hesitate.  It’s a lot like driving in the fog; we become cautious, slow, and risk-averse when we’re not able to see our situation clearly.

5. Uncertainty

Ever been in a meeting when a new idea is proposed and you’re asked immediately after the presentation for your feedback only to draw a blank?  Yeah, we all have.  This is because it takes time for our brains to process new ideas  so we are able to make the necessary connections to form an opinion.  While some thoughts or questions may come to mind quickly, they rarely represent the full scope of what should be asked or considered.  In this case, our silence doesn’t mean we agree with the proposal, only that we haven’t fully thought through the implications.

6. Time pressures

Everyone is in a hurry and wants to make progress on their ideas and projects.  Speaking up and raising concerns may mean slowing down (or killing) someone else’s momentum, which could cause a whole lot of negative vibes to be directed your way.

One of the more famous examples of this occurred in 1986 when an O-ring failure led to the tragedy of the Challenger spaceship explosion.  Pressure to complete the project by the launch date caused people to minimize the issues and stay silent about the potential failure of the faulty part.  Speaking up would have cost significant time and money but could have saved the lives of seven people that day.

7. The danger is real

These are all common and understandable barriers to speaking up.  It is not fair to point fingers at those who stay silent and blame them for not having enough courage or assertiveness.  This isn’t a character issue; it’s a culture issue.  We need to learn to create environments that reduce or eliminate the barriers that people face.

It is not fair to point fingers at those who stay silent and blame them for not having enough courage or assertiveness.  This isn’t a character issue; it’s a culture issue. 

Ways to Move Forward

Building safety in a group can take significant time and it is certainly not entirely in the control of the leader. However, there are tangible things that can be done to move the needle in the right direction.

Here are four areas to consider as you move forward:

1. Create Clarity

Clear away the fog and tackle ambiguity wherever you find it.

  • Facilitate an open conversation about desired group norms, expectations, or working agreements. What do people need to feel safe in a meeting?  Example: A commitment not to interrupt one another.
  • Clarify how decisions are made. Is there is an individual who has the authority or is this a group process?  If it’s a group decision, how will it be made?
2. Minimize Power Distance

Status imbalance creates significant psychological stress.  People will speak up more often if they feel they are among equals.

  • Reconsider or eliminate traditional status symbols like executive washrooms, fancy suits, nicer chairs, corner offices, inflated job titles, etc.
  • Model vulnerability as a leader. Share failures and knowledge gaps by saying things like, “I don’t know yet,” or “What am I missing here?”
  • Share information openly and transparently. Identify what is currently only accessible to leaders and consider opening it up to others.  Train people to understand your financial reality, operating model, and basic strategy for success.
  • Master the art of listening. Delay coming to conclusions, stay curious, and learn to ask good questions. If people feel heard and understood, they’re more likely to speak up again.
3. Build Confidence

Create the conditions for people to feel more confident in their own perspectives.

  • Destigmatize failure. Normalize failure when venturing out into new territory and reframe mistakes as learning opportunities.  Don’t ask, “Who’s responsible?” Ask, “What can we all learn here?”
  • Practice better facilitation methods that give people time to gather their thoughts. Instead of going straight to open forum discussion, give people a few minutes to jot down notes on their own and then share those ideas with the person next to them, before moving to large group conversation.
  • Circle back on proposals and revisit areas for decision. Use one meeting to introduce an idea, and another meeting to discuss and decide on a direction.  The space in between will ensure a much richer discussion.
  • Acknowledge and appreciate everyone’s voice. Intentionally thank people for speaking up and offering their perspective (especially the dissenting voices).
  • Respond and do something with what you’ve heard. When someone shares an idea or offers a critique, make sure it doesn’t simply die on the vine because it’s hard to talk about.  This might mean recording comments in the meeting minutes, taking action on an idea, following up on progress, or giving clear rationale on why a suggestion wasn’t incorporated in the ultimate decision.
4. Foster Connectedness

People feel safer in groups where they have strong relationships and feel both trusted and cared for.

  • Make time to connect personally with everyone on your team. If you don’t have a rhythm of check-ins and 1:1 meetings already, get on that ASAP.
  • Have fun together and get to know one another as more than just co-workers. This may be planned social events, intentional coffee breaks, or simply starting each meeting with a fun “check-in” question.  Get creative.  This is never wasted time.
  • Acknowledge and resolve conflicts. Take the initiative to have the hard conversation and rebuild trust with each member of your team when tensions arise.  If the conflict is between two other members of your team, don’t let it go unaddressed, but don’t jump in and try to fix it either.  Instead, act as a coach and facilitator to help them resolve the issue with each other directly.
  • Deal with toxic behaviour and name elephants in the room. If there is eye-rolling or cutting sarcasm in a meeting, call that out and agree together that those behaviours are not acceptable.  If everyone knows that people will gossip or have “meetings after the meeting”, deal with that.  Tolerating disrespectful behaviour on a team will kill all your efforts at building safety.
Research and experience show us psychological safety is one of the primary ingredients for high performing teams. 

Creating a culture of safety for people to speak up takes intentionality and practice.  Don’t give up if your first few efforts don’t seem to be helping.  Like most areas, you need to get your reps in before you master the thing.

Research and experience show us psychological safety is one of the primary ingredients for high performing teams.  Any progress you make in this area will pay all sorts of dividends in the long run.  It’s worth the investment.

Where will you start?

If you would like support or coaching as you lead your team, don’t hesitate to reach out.  We love this stuff.

Check out our website for more great leadership blogs by Dan Doerksen. For additional FREE resources, visit our resources page. 


Dan Doerksen

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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