The Sounds of Silence: Culture Change Isn’t Noisy

The first time it happened, we were taken by surprise. At the end of an hour of tame reporting from various departments at the annual meeting, the new CEO loaded her silencer.  

First, she talked about a wonderful reunion she had enjoyed with a few of her former, delightful colleagues who were willing to help us pro bono. Then she leaned toward our group and chastised us for being gossipy and back-stabbing. Wow!  No one saw that coming.  Her announcement was returned with stares, and she said, “Let’s move on to the next agenda item.”

The fact is there WAS dissension and disagreement about her leadership decisions.  There Was gossip among those who felt shuffled off.  A fierce leader for a national organization once told a group of us how she was treated when she spoke up.  The reaction was “Put Baby in the corner.”  (Dirty Dancing fans will recognize this line.)  Her desk literally faced the corner.

There is no leader who can mandate that people change their feelings.  

  • When people do not feel seen or heard by new leadership, and they still care about their work or the organization, they vent, sometimes to the leadership, mostly among themselves.  Then inevitably, there is a strange pronouncement from the leader letting people know their dissatisfaction is being surveilled.  You may wonder, “Who’s the betrayer?”  No matter.  Take it as a warning that the culture is shifting from what you knew or believed it to be.
  • When a culture changes due to a new CEO, there are choices to be made whether we realize it or not.  We can “go along to get along” or we can ask questions.  But, take heed, in silencing cultures, questions are disruptive.  It quickly becomes clear that the acceptable behavior is to “bend a knee,” to borrow from Game of Thrones.
  • As I say in “Involuntary Exit,” with a new boss, it’s a clean slate, and we shouldn’t confuse past success with any guarantees for the future.  It can be fatal to overestimate your worth to an organization.  It’s better to overestimate your worth to yourself.

Leaders Need Followers, and Rulers Need Supplicants

Leadership that is so intent on establishing its authority leaves diversity in the dust, including cognitive diversity.   The silencing is a key step in pointing someone to the exit.  Cheryl remembers when she so desperately wanted to be heard.  At one meeting, her new boss told her, “If I wanted your opinion, I would have asked you for it.”  At a second meeting, he told her, “I invited you to listen, I don’t want to hear you talk; this isn’t your meeting.”  At a third meeting, he said, “If you raise that again, I’ll take you off the committee.”   

You may be thinking, “Why did Cheryl persist?”  1.  She thought she was adding value.  2.  She still believed there was hope to do the right thing.  3.  She didn’t understand that the new leadership failed to recognize her value proposition, what she was uniquely bringing to the table.  It was clear to her but didn’t match the reality of what she was experiencing.  When she spoke with her colleagues, they commiserated but couldn’t fully appreciate the psychological impact on Cheryl that was invisible to them.  

What You Can Do

  1. Trust your instincts.  If you believe you’re being silenced, you are.
  2. Resist the urge to contribute any more of your value.  After all, you’ve honed your contributions from years of experience.  You are a commodity.    If the organization doesn’t value your assets under a new leader, this won’t change until the leader changes.
  3. Begin detaching.  We all want to be part of organizations where we can speak freely and can be seen and heard. “Detachment is based on the unquestioning belief in the power of your true Self.” – Deepak Chopra

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