Organizational laryngitis – a term I made up – is not a medical condition in which everyone at work suddenly loses his and her voice.
Instead, it is a psychological and cultural condition.
Organizational laryngitis is widespread, culturally entrenched, a sapper of new ideas and a demoralizer. It occurs when large groups of people feel they cannot safely speak up with their ideas, perspectives and points of view.
When this condition sets in, the conversation does not stop. It goes underground. People need to express their ideas and interpretations, and if it is not safe to do so in meetings and with authority figures, they do it with colleagues.
Once true communication stops, several bad things happen. The talent walks out, the conversation becomes mainly complaining rather than problem-solving and a gulf is created between managers and employees. The longer it goes on, the wider it gets.
It is always interesting to watch what happens when new employees come in, unaware that the culture supports organizational laryngitis. They may speak up in meetings, prompting immediate eye contact and looks of alarm from those already afflicted. They know the newbie didn’t get the memo on what can and cannot be said around the place. Poor thing. Someone will have to have a chat with him or her in the hallway or coffee room – the great forums for conveying the real culture.
Why does this laryngitis start? Usually because someone signals that he or she did not want to hear what was just said. This is all it takes to inhibit the communication. A kind of no-go zone is established. Interestingly, it is not usually through the actual words said in response. It’s usually the facial expression and body language. The speaker picks up on an emotional level that a line was crossed.
If you’re ever interviewing for a job, one important question to informally ask your prospective colleagues, perhaps over coffee or lunch, is: “Can you tell the truth around here?”
If you are a manager, what can you do about this horrible condition? Here are some keys:
• Ask people what they really think
• Ask people what they are really feeling.
• Share difficult truths yourself, modeling the way that it’s OK to talk about the pleasant and not-so pleasant.
In organizations where laryngitis has been healed, it’s amazing how fluidly and effectively people communicate. Since there’s no need to sweep things under the carpet, information flows much faster and efficiently. There is no need for secrets.
Also, trust is higher. A great body of work now links trust to speed and effectiveness in business results. After all, you know how much longer it takes you to operate in a low-trust environment. That email you have to write to someone you don’t trust takes about five times as long.