Silence often makes people uncomfortable. But remarkably, leaders can also use silence to generate breakthroughs in performance. Let me explore: I recently facilitated a two-day strategy retreat with 10 senior leaders of a company that had been reorganized. One objective of the retreat was to check in on the progress of the reorganization, which was designed to encourage more collaboration and decision making lower in the ranks.

I had just summarized the findings from interviews I conducted with each team member, as well as with some managers the next level down. My report to the group was not pleasant to hear, but was consistent with what just about everybody had said: The company was not benefiting from the reorganization. Most people reported that cross-functional collaboration had become more stressful, less frequent, and less successful.

Silence isn’t golden

I asked the group for their top-of-mind reactions to the report. Silence. I waited 10 heartbeats. More silence. I smiled encouragingly but people shifted their eyes away. Louder silence. A bead of sweat trickled under my shirt. Still no one spoke. Finally, to break the tension, I said, “Ah, the sound of the dead cat bounce.” This prompted some chuckles as we awkwardly moved on with some superficial commentary.

The meeting continued, but felt stilted and constrained.  But it wasn’t just me.  Even when others asked questions the dead cats kept bouncing. Yet at dinner that evening the group was quite convivial and open. They were a lot of fun when they let their hair down.

I didn’t sleep that night. I ruminated about what could have caused the silence, especially what I may have done to discourage open dialogue.  And I worried about the day to come.

The next morning’s session was designed to help the group translate broad strategic objectives into action plans, and to create cross-departmental teams to perform the work. But I didn’t feel comfortable plunging in right away. So I asked the group how they felt about the previous day’s session, and whether there was a need to improve the group’s interaction going forward.

And what followed? Another long interval during which I only heard the faint buzzing of the overhead fluorescent lights.  At that moment I couldn’t help myself. I disclosed the insomnia I experienced the night before, and said, “I don’t know how to interpret your silence,” and sat down.

Silence as a tool?

A few people said that I shouldn’t misinterpret their silence; it just meant they had nothing to contribute and didn’t want to speak gratuitously. I stayed quiet.

One person ventured that he was uncomfortable with the feedback report, and disagreed with my conclusions. Another said she felt the same way. Someone else countered that the report was spot-on but he didn’t reply because he was embarrassed. Another team member said she didn’t want to risk not being seen as a team player, so she didn’t speak up. I remained quiet.

All of a sudden there was an explosion of voices, as they began to noisily debate the virtues and problems created not by my report, but by the reorganization itself. I just kept my seat and kept my mouth closed.

Their conversation cleared up several misunderstandings. A few team members had been blaming each other for some real or imagined breach of trust. Some confessed that they had even influenced their direct reports to move away from cross-organizational projects in favor of more narrow assignments. I said little, occasionally asking others to summarize key points to ensure people were listening to each other. This all took place in less than 2 hours.

The conversation seemed to clear the way for the group to work productively on their strategic objectives, and they tackled this task with enthusiasm.

At the end of the meeting everyone reported to be enormously satisfied with the outcomes reached, and expressed renewed commitment to making the reorganization work. But I felt obligated to return to the topic of silence, and asked the group to discuss this further.

This time people chimed in that they intended to take more responsibility for their participation. They agreed to a ground rule for future meetings to assume that silence did not signal agreement, but implied disagreement. And in the face of silence the silent must ‘come clean.’ No one wanted to hear the dead cat bounce again.

Please weigh in…

Self-censored silence is just one example of a challenging team dynamic. But there are so many different types of interesting dynamics that we encounter as team members, leaders or facilitators. So we wonder, readers out there in the blogosphere: What is an example of a challenging team dynamic you’ve experienced, and what, if anything did you do about it? Please comment below, because we don’t want any dead cats bouncing on our blog!

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