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| 2 minutes read

Mum's the word. Is schtum impacting your mobility program?

I never knew there was a word for the practice or behavior of remaining silent and not speaking up in meetings, public settings or other exposed environments. While some people have a lot to say privately, they are not always willing to announce it publicly. This Management Today article, further defines this phenomena of “not speaking up”, looks at some recent research on it, calls out the potential downsides to it and explores how to avoid it.

It is often assumed that people hold back their comments and opinions because they fear potential career damage. Or they're cynical about the possibility that their input would have no impact and isn't worth the risk. Some recent research from the University of Sydney Business School, and Mats Alvesson, professor of business administration at Lund University identifies four primary reasons for people's silence. Per the article, they are:

  1. Opportunism: A focus on individual wellbeing and career progression, where a persons self-interest outweighs any organizational goals. It can mean that people don’t see the value in contributing to organizational change.
  2. Convenience: Why make things harder? People want an uncomplicated working life and regard silence during meetings as the most efficient way to reduce the time spent discussing new work processes they don’t feel are all that helpful anyway.
  3. Ineptitude: This is where people think speaking up is beyond their capabilities or unsuited to their personality. Fear of what others might think of what they say often stops them from saying anything.
  4. Detachment: This relates to the trend of ‘quiet quitting’ or doing the bare minimum, where people focus solely on their own area and feel no responsibility for, or connection to, their workplace.

While meetings may go more quickly, the impact of “schtum” has lots of downsides for mobility teams, programs and across organizations. As the authors point out:

Employee input can be critical in helping to develop new ideas, identifying areas of concern and building a sense of community. Silence, on the other hand, can lead to poor decision-making and error-detection, low commitment and trust, reduced motivation and satisfaction, and increased withdrawal and employee turnover.

But there are some ways to help your team, program and organization avoid the negative impacts of schtum. Here are their 4 suggestions:

  1. Good communication and expectation setting: Understand that in advance of meetings, many people would benefit from knowing the agenda ahead of time so that they have time to consider and prepare. From there, they often feel more confident and willing to share their ideas, thoughts and opinions. Let them know they are expected to come prepared to share their views.
  2. Mentorship: Mentoring newcomers, or even existing employees, supports trust building and help directly address individuals that seem to be holding back. Focused coaching can support them out of the schtum!
  3. Build connections: This suggestion can be facilitated by encouraging participation by creating small breakout groups. Consider encouraging more vocal workers to create alliances with quieter colleagues. Hopefully, they will being this trust into the larger group conversations.
  4. Recognize and reward: This helps to create an environment that promotes speaking up, while discouraging silence.  Passivity and silence should be noted as undesirable in individual performance discussions, appraisal talks or promotion decisions. Valuable contributions should also be noted or celebrated to elicit or reinforce more effort than just saying something in order to tick a box for participation.

Ultimately, speaking up in meetings should not be seen as courageous. The focus on building a culture where voicing is normalized and where sharing is acknowledged and rewarded will help to ensure that the best ideas and suggestions come out and can leveraged to create a world-class global mobility program! 

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People are often reluctant to air their views in meetings, and the reasons go beyond fear of damaging their career or cynicism about whether anything will change – for example, they might just want a quiet life, or feel no connection to the workplace. - But lack of employee input is damaging to an organisation, and leaders need to change structures, rituals and expectations to encourage participation in meetings in order to build a sense of community and develop new ideas.


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