Leadership Breaking Point#1: Someone is Silent or Withholding Information

Leadership Breaking Points - Empathic Solutions Series


When Silence is not Golden

On August 10th, 1628, the Vasa, one of the most heavily armed warships ever built, inaugurated with great pomp after two years of construction and a small fortune invested by the King of Sweden, completely sank after only 18 minutes of sailing resulting in the loss of 30 lives.

The KIng wanted a narrow boat with many canons. Engineers were afraid to tell him it would not work, so no one dared to tell him the truth.

It might be tempting to throw the stone at the engineers for their lack of honesty or at the King for stimulating the fear that presumably led to the silence.  We’ll actually explore this leadership breaking point from both angles.

The cost of silence

Amy Edmondson, researcher and author, says that in a knowledge economy it’s mission-critical to hear from people. Missing information can determine the outcome of projects or initiatives. Staying silent or not can be a profoundly impactful decision and that age-old dilemma has many angles and facets to it to consider. Nonetheless, the flow of information is so important in any organization that it’s key to reflect on what it costs to make the choice of staying silent to better appreciate the decisions we’re making moment to moment.

Empathic Solution: King’s point of view 

When we have direct reports, it’s easy to forget the fear that is created simply by the power dynamic. An empathic solution to mitigate this breaking point is therefore to first take some time to put ourselves in the shoes of people working under our supervision and recognize that fear.  Inquire how it might feel to be in their position. Second, it is likely to help to take a sharp look in the mirror and find out what we do contribute to this fear, and third, to come up with a plan to increase the safety of others. The field of Psychological Safety offers several suggestions in this regard organized in three areas: Setting the Stage, Inviting Engagement and Responding Productively.

Setting the Stage

This has to do with how we initiate a conversation when we have a structural leadership position. Setting the stage involves reframing failures; It’s important to frame work in ways that support people in actually doing the work.  In a complex system with high stakes and high workloads, errors will occur, failures will happen and the list of responsibilities may be longer than the hours in the day.  It’s wise to simply acknowledge this as a given. This helps to shift the belief that a person isn’t competent when a plate is too full, or a proposal doesn’t go as planned.  This shift frees up energy to learn, be strategic and focused.

Another part of Setting the stage is about clarifying the need for voice: When people don’t speak up, crucial input is lost. When leaders frame the importance of voice --  people are more likely to speak up -- thereby overcoming the inherent asymmetry of voice and silence.  

The third component of Setting the Stage focuses on motivating efforts. Emphasizing a sense of purpose is another key element of setting the stage for psychological safety. Motivating people by articulating a compelling purpose is a well-established leadership task. Leaders who remind people of why what they do matters – for customers, for the world – help create the energy that carries them through challenging moments.

Inviting Engagement

Inviting engagement relates to how we invite others to speak after having set the stage. The first suggestion is to have situational humility: Inviting participation in a way that people find compelling and genuine is critical. Given that self-protection is natural, a leader who adopts a humble, learning mindset that acknowledges your errors, shortcomings sends a strong invitation to engage and bring voice.

Anne Mulcahy, Chair and CEO of Xerox, known as “Master of I Don’t Know” says: “Instead of people losing confidence, they actually gain confidence in you when you admit you don’t know something.” This creates space for others to step up and engage.

Proactive inquiry is also part of inviting engagement. Inquiry is purposeful probing. Rules of thumb for asking a good question are: you don’t know the answer, the question does not limit responses to Yes or No, and it’s phrased in a way that helps others share their thinking in a focused way

Responding Productively

This third aspect of Psychological Safety has to do with what a leader says when she’s responding after people shared. The most important aspect of this component is to express appreciation. Whether a suggestion or question is believed to be good or bad, useful or not, the first response must be appreciation -- to acknowledge the courage it takes to speak up.

Praising effort is especially important in uncertain environments, where good outcomes are not always the result of good process, and vice versa.

Empathic Solution: Engineer’s point of view 

If you heard the expression: “Spoke truth to power and suffered consequences” you have an idea of what is central to the fear about speaking up.

The empathic solution, from a direct report perspective, has to do with starting by acknowledging the presence of that fear, while understanding that their position in the power dynamics is largely responsible for that fear. Working with fear, while being a complex topic, has several universal principles. Instead of moving away from the fear, it’s helpful to face it and allow it to be there. Then connecting with the underlying need for safety is likely to bring an internal shift. Once we’re connected to the need for safety, for protection, we can start to ask ourselves: “what would need to happen for me to feel safer in this situation?” One of the ways might simply be to seek support from others who might have been through similar situations. After some reflection we might come with a plan that allows for sufficient safety while allowing information to be shared.

A typical objection to speaking might be that we don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, that we want to protect someone’s confidentiality, or that we want to demonstrate alignment with the party’s line. There are by far not easy to deal with.

Again, an empathic approach suggests to identify what is important to each player including ourselves. This exercise alone is likely to increase your level of presence and instil a collaboration stance as opposed to a judgemental and divisive one. Once you’re connected to what’s important to everyone, now focus on the mission, the purpose of the organization and rest your attention on it for a while. This is likely to naturally bring you to a view that includes what’s important for individuals and for the whole; from that place, you can make decisions that are going to reflect your sense of integrity.


Since information is vital, it’s also vital to create conditions for the information to flow. Approaching this endeavor with an empathic stance has the potential to shift isolating and alienating dynamics towards connection and a higher level of trust and collaboration.