The power of silence

I’m going to make a sweeping statement based on nothing but experience and belief;

Too many leaders spend far too much time talking.

I’m not just extolling the virtues of listening and asking questions, I’m also talking about the ability to be able to hold silence and say nothing. Let me ask you, how many times have you been in a meeting where the most senior person has spent the largest amount of time speaking? And if you’re a leader, how many times have you come out of a meeting feeling like all you’ve done is tell people what to do?

What if you said absolutely nothing. Zip. Nada. Rien.

When we talk about empowerment and building sustainable, resilient teams it strikes me one of the first steps is to hold back the amount we needlessly contribute and focus more on adding value where it is asked for and needed.

The next time you’re in that situation, ask yourself:

  • Has someone specifically asked for my view?
  • Do I have information that I know will help people move forward?
  • Do I have experience that I know no-one else in the room has?
  • Would something dangerous/illegal/costly happen if I didn’t speak?
  • Am I offering something that I don’t mind being ignored?

If the answer isn’t yes to one of these, you might want to check yourself and listen to the conversation before deciding to step in.


Is this liberation?

My daughter told me this week about a conversation with one of her friends. The subject was whether it was possible to complete your homework without access to the internet. Before we all start to roll our eyes and talk about generations, it was a thoughtful conversation about whether the sources of data that were available to them offline would be sufficient versus the wealth of data available online.

I’ve been known to say that my children think they know everything, because they have Google. The smartphone and the search capability provide them with a surrogate brain and borrowed knowledge. Maybe there is something wrong with that, maybe there isn’t.

What I do question, is whether we are effectively outsourcing our decision making capability to technology and therefore losing the skills and experience to help us effectively and quickly work things out.

When I worked in a bar as a student, the landlord refused to have an electronic till. Instead we had one of the old push button ones with a cash drawer that pinged open with delight and the very real risk of losing a kidney. As a student of economics and accounting at the time, my maths was never stronger than when I was running mental totals of drinks orders for customers who would invariably use it as a chance to question your answer.

In the modern workplace, we rarely calculate anything ourselves. Walk around the streets of any town or city and you’ll see people looking at their phones to show them the direction. We are more likely to look at an app, than out of the window, to know the weather.

In some ways, if we’re using the liberation from the mundane to focus our minds on higher matter, the more complicated and meaningful topics, then you have to argue that this is a huge step forward. If the systemisation of the transactional allows us to learn, to be curious and thoughtful; to read, to think, to share, to talk and grow.

But if we are being led down the path of unconscious disempowerment and the destruction of creativity, problem solving and reduction of our innate ability to guesstimate, approximate and divine, then we need to think again.

If our liberation merely allows us the ability to take photos of our food and share them with people we have never met, to find out where we need to be, without knowing where we are, to be given an answer, without understanding the question. If our liberation does nothing more than reduce the sum of our parts, we have to question whether that is liberation at all. When we are beholden on something or someone else to allow us to fulfil our lives, we are more likely to find ourselves trapped, rather than free.

The last resort

We draw inspiration from some funny places. The moments, the stories, the experiences that sometimes we even struggle to place can form our thinking, our feeling and our doing. As a kid, I had a collection of Aesop’s Fables, I can’t even remember whether they were read to me, or I read them myself. Or perhaps even both. But I remember the stories.

The one that sticks with me most is the story of the North Wind and The Sun. If you’re not familiar with the fables then you can read more about it here. The message being that gentleness or persuasion is more powerful than force or bluster. A lesson that has stuck with me through life and work.

The organizational context within which we co-exist is becoming increasingly complex, with relationships stretching across borders and boundaries. Inter connecting departments, shared purpose with separate ownership, leadership from within not above.  The world of work is increasingly full of ambiguity.

And faced with ambiguity and complexity, the natural instinct is to create order from disorder, certainty in uncertainty and control the uncontrollable. But the rules of the games have changed forever and the traditional methods of management are themselves ineffective, outdated and the refuge of the ineffective and outdated; the last resort of the inept.

In this increasingly complex and inter connecting world those that succeed are the ones that understand that trust beats control, that persuasion beats force, that collaboration beats independence. We create cohesion not by instruction, but by willingly coming together, we create certainty by collectively defining the future, we create success through self-determination and empowerment.

The future of work bears little resemblance to the past, the environment is changing at such a pace and some will adapt, but many won’t. The scared, ill prepared and ineffective will try to hold it back. The wise will listen, understand, talk, create, co-operate and succeed.

When things are bafflingly complex, only through empowering, respecting, trusting and collaborating will we find the way through.

Only by letting go will we hold on.