“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care.” – Colin Powell

It was a typical staff meeting. The executive officer sat at the head of the horseshoe conference room table and held court: taking updates from each of the staff, sharing his particular wisdom on each and every topic, and issuing directives along the way. Otherwise, the room remained largely silent. This was his meeting, and he tended to do most of the talking.

As the meeting started the second hour, people began to shift uncomfortably in their seats. It was hot in the conference room, the vinyl chairs were sticky, and the drinks most people brought with them were now empty. No one wanted to be the first person to leave to use the bathroom. That was something that annoyed the executive officer, and nobody wanted to see that side of his personality that day.

Perhaps sensing the mood, he scanned the room in search of a target. The silence was deafening. We’d all seen this maneuver before, and it didn’t tend to end well. He gaze fixed in the direction of the public affairs officer; his eyes narrowed as his vision focused like a laser range finder.

“What’s your <expletive> problem?” the executive officer growled.

“Sir?” the public affairs officer replied with no small amount of surprise.

“Why did you roll your eyes at me? Do I have a <expletive> <expletive> growing out of my forehead?” the executive officer screamed.

“Sir, I didn’t roll my eyes at you.”

“Everybody out, NOW! Except you,” he said, pointing a finger at the public affairs officer. “Everybody but you.”

The conference room quickly cleared, some relieved because the weekly staff meeting was over, others pleased just to breathe fresh air again. Everyone, however, was quietly thankful they had avoided the executive officer’s wrath for another week. Better him than me was a selfish thought, but it was a sentiment most felt at one time or another.

The executive officer’s rants were part theater, part bullying, and all unnecessary. They grew from his deeply held belief that if you really wanted to get someone’s attention, you did so by yelling at them. The more profane, the better. The problem with this approach, however, was that few on the staff could tell with any degree of certainty when he was acting. The cost of guessing wrong was worse, so most just stayed silent. The quieter the staff became, the more determined he was to get their attention. It was a vicious cycle, and everyone was coming out on the losing end.

While this is a relatively extreme example, the end result isn’t that uncommon. Silence is rarely a sign of consent; when people don’t speak up around you, there’s usually a reason. It’s not them, it’s you. And you can do something about it. But, to break the silence, you have to first understand it.

One of the most basic reasons people remain silent is that they think you won’t listen. Either from your attitude, your body language, or your history with them, they’ve learned not to waste their breath around you. If you don’t listen – or you take a defensive tone every time someone offers feedback – don’t expect people to speak up. If you want feedback, you have to be open to it, and that means encouraging and welcoming it.

Oftentimes, people stay quiet because they think you’ve already made up your mind. Once we make a decision, we are often hesitant to revisit it. But if you’re someone who settles on a decision without considering all the available information, eventually people are going to quietly let you stop off the ledge. If you want to make the best decisions possible, then you need that information, you need to listen. You have to communicate that expectation to people.

It’s also possible they just don’t care. This signals a potential tear in the fabric of the team. When people stop caring, it’s generally because they feel disconnected from the organization, or – more often than not – you. That disconnect leads to people who provide little input and tend to be clock watchers during meetings. The less they say, the sooner they think they will get to leave. Don’t put this on them. As a leader, you’re responsible for building the sense of team, for drawing the personal connections between individuals and the group.

Finally, people often stay quiet because they feel alone. They forget that others might be thinking the same thing and remain silent to avoid looking stupid in front of the group. Maybe they think they missed something or that they don’t understand when they should, so they keep quiet. Remind people that you want their input – you need their input – and you value their opinion. Encourage people to speak up. Welcome their thoughts. The stronger the bond between you and your people, the more they will speak up and the better your team will function.

Related News

Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.