Enjoy this excerpt from our new book, Healthy Leadership.
Consider a time at work when you were crystal clear about where your team was going, how you would interact, and what results were expected. If you are fortunate enough to recall such a scenario, you likely worked with more confidence, greater speed, sharper focus, and heightened accountability. This clarity also eliminated or minimized things like waste, anxiety, and fear.
Now, consider a time when your leader’s office door was closed more than usual, and she missed the last team meeting. You were trying to get on her calendar, but her assistant pushed your meeting off.
During lunch the next day, you start to put two and two together: closed office door plus missed meeting plus inaccessible must mean something BIG is happening. Oh, no! Is the company being sold? Are they getting ready for a layoff? Am I on the hot seat? Should I start floating my resume?
Your fears turn out to be unfounded. The next week you find out that you were adding two plus two and getting five. Your boss was working on a high-priority, confidential project with a very tight deadline. It required uninterrupted time to focus, so she kept her door closed, opted out of the last meeting, and asked her assistant to defer other meetings.
Don’t blame yourself for having imagined a disaster scenario; you likely weren’t the only employee to do so. To protect and prepare ourselves, we often assume the worst in the absence of evidence to the contrary. Lack of information and unanswered questions can start a Silence Spiral that looks like this:
• Silence leads to doubt;
• Doubt leads to fear;
• Fear leads to panic;
• Panic leads to worst-case thinking.
Particularly when change is on the horizon—as it often is in business and in life—humans crave clarity.
Your brain does not resist change, but it does resist confusion and ambiguity, which often precede change. Your brain seeks information to make sense of the world and to make smart, safe decisions.
As a result, when employees don’t get the necessary information to perform their jobs or understand the goals of the organization, they tend to fill in the blanks with their own assumptions, and these assumptions are often worst-case scenarios. This is a natural human tendency when we analyze available data in an attempt to seek clarity.
When the Silence Spiral takes hold in an organization, ambiguity rules. This undermines clarity and all of its positive by-products. It can take five minutes or five weeks to play out, but in most cases, the fog of silence rolls in more rapidly than we would imagine.
A closed office door, a vague reply to an honest question, or an unreciprocated greeting as you pass in the hallway can trigger the Silence Spiral. The antidote to harmful silence is simple: clarity. It produces calm, trust, and best-case thinking.
Clarity is the next best thing to certainty, which is unattainable in our changing world.