Silence is just not always golden

Henry Adjei BOADI

In the ensuing paragraphs, I will attempt to examine what makes silence so prevalent in our respective individual lives – and even those of organisations. From there, I will consider the personal and organisational costs of the insidious culture of silence as they grow unimaginably. Finally, I will conclude on the need to break free from this unpleasant silent sink. After all, if one has nothing to hide, why must one be afraid of empty babbling?

Much blame can ascribed to deeply ingrained sets of customs and rules of etiquette behaviour that makes people succumb to silence – in order to avoid confrontational embarrassment and other perceived dangers ‘audacious’ expressions would otherwise elicit. Silence is oftentimes rightly or wrongly associated with such virtues of piety, modesty, respect for others, prudence and decorum. There’s even an old saying that sums up the virtues of silence thus: “Better to be quiet and thought a fool than to talk and be known as one,” and the good book version has it that when a fool is quiet, s/he is considered to be wise.

The need for quiet submission is, as a matter of fact, overly exaggerated. It is said, for instance, that “Some men envelop themselves in such an impenetrable cloak of silence that their tongue will afford us no symptoms of the mind”. Such taciturnity, indeed, is wise if they are fools, but foolish if they are wise; and the only method useful to forming a judgment of these mutes is narrowly observing when, where and how they smile.

“Silence is the safest course for any man to adopt who distrusts himself.” – Rochefoucauld. Thus, why should one be silent and be burning in the marrow while s/he means well.

Organisational Deviance or Corporate Mavericks 

A study conducted by Milliken et al., 2003 indicates that over 85% of the managers and professionals interviewed admitted they had kept silent about work concerns.

Oftentimes, individuals who challenge the status quo or express their concerns publicly are severely punished without necessarily infringing any law. If they’re not fired outright, they’re usually treated as pariahs – marginalised and made to feel irrelevant by either being stagnated, negatively affected by either delayering or restructuring, unfairly transferred or even denied working tools.

Organisational Deviance (OD) most often carries negative connotations; however, it is not synonymous with dysfunctionality. Deviance, almost invariably, is a creative act. It could be an avenue of thinking outside the box and coming out with and/or inventing new approaches to doing things. Gallant and altruistic acts of deviance more often than not point to areas where organisations need to change and can result in fruitful options. It is important we realise that norms can have exceptions. By questioning a particular norm, we become an integral part in shaping or changing same.

Sometimes people who do speak up get their day in the sun. A very recent landmark case has to do with David Lochridge of OceanGate Submersible Implosion, who was given just 10 minutes to pack and leave his job. And as if that was not enough, attempts were made to prosecute him for subterfuge. Besides that, history is also replete with clear examples in the following: Sherron Watkins of Enron, Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom, and Coleen Rowley at the FBI – all of whom are judged right by posterity as they are accorded a place in the annals of Time as ‘Persons of the Year’. Caution needs to be given, however, not to construe their recognition to mean that speaking out is necessarily courageous or praiseworthy in a proper, well-controlled and professionally-structured environment.

Intrinsic cost and-or derivative value of silence to organisations 

It is time to take the gilt off corporate silence. There is a prevailing research that shows silence is not only ubiquitous and expected in organisations, but extremely costly to both the firm and individual.

An employee is said to be silent when s/he withholds ideas, suggestions or concerns about people, products or processes that might have been communicated verbally to someone inside the organisation with the perceived authority to act. In their book Silenced by fear: The nature, sources, and consequences of fear at work, Jennifer J. Kish-Gephart et al., 2009 on pp 166–167, among others assert that when employees keep silent about potential improvements to their organisations, they may feel unsatisfied and uncommitted; their leaders will not be able to obtain useful information, ideas and opinions; and their organisations may be in danger of stagnation.

It should also be common knowledge that there is dysfunctionality when otherwise bubbling and enthusiastic employees get quiet.

Among the numerous factors that affect employee-silence is the role of leaders who help define the working context around employees. Leaders play a key role in defining employees’ working behaviour. Leaders’ egos and confidence level, as well as their empowering outlook, also affect the working climate in an organisation.

Endemic corruption in the public sphere calls for serious whistleblowing considerations 

Way back in May 2010, the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition under the British High Commission-Ghana’s auspices authored A Guide to Whistleblowing in Ghana. It wasn’t as if there wasn’t a framework. The Whistleblowing Act, Act 720, was passed in 2006 – but its implementation lives much to be desired in curbing conduct that negatively impedes Ghana’s development.

The endemic nature of corruption in developing countries generally – and the damage it causes when remaining entrenched – is not in question.

Many countries with emerging economies suffer from a high level of corruption that slows their overall development. The entire society is affected as a result of inefficient resources allocation; the presence of a shadow economy; and low-quality education and healthcare. Corruption thus makes these societies worse-off and lowers living standards for most of their populations.

The human cost of corruption is devastating: If the huge monies stolen by a very few in high and low places to the detriment of the poor and common persons drinking muddy and murky water, struggling to get two square meals and walking barefoot to school – or without even an opportunity to attend school – were retained by a developing nation such as Ghana, it could help avert several thousand deaths a year and lift the country out of its doldrums. The juicy news is that our nation, which is so much endowed with resources, wouldn’t be relying on overseas aid.

Curbing corruption is one of our surest bets to attain greatness. Unfortunately, there are fears that progress around the fight is stalling. There seems to be no commitment to fighting the canker. Those involved in the crackdown effort are either giving up out of frustration or deliberately hounded out. Men of conscience should be bold and prepared to talk truth to power, and demand accountability and performance for the sake of posterity.

The opportunity cost of not fighting the twin menace of theft and corruption is certainly manifested in high levels of poverty, deprivation, underdevelopment and high incidence of crime.

We have to build our economy to end the spectre of poverty and heal the divisions between rich and poor. The way to do it is building what I call ‘empowering societies’.

The political duopoly we have in the country is not helping in the fight against corruption. Unfortunately, the citizenry – due to our blind loyalty – are giving politicians from both ends the leeway to milk the country through their unbridled selfish and corrupt actions. As citizens, we need to eschew partisanship and hold elected officials to account at all times. When we fail to live up to our civic responsibilities, we are inviting intervention from sources which ordinarily have no business in governance.

For instance, the military’s penchant for entering politics in the past was due to the fact that Ghana was characterised by corruption – with a disproportionately small middle-class and significant divergence between living standards of the upper-class and lower-class. Most of the country’s resources were aggregated in the hands of persons who were in themselves corrupt or backed corrupt public officials. The judiciary is seen as biased and more political than professional – not ready to dispense justice to all levels of people without fear or any other consideration.

We seem to have lost our sense of morality, decency, justice and accountability to partisanship. Corruption exists in all facets of our lives, and particularly within the known arms of Ghanaian government. And there is often a lack of accountability – the country is said to have lost US$9.6billion to corruption in the 3.7-years rein of His Excellency Nana Akufo-Addo; and it would be interesting to know how much was lost under the previous government. What this means is that majority of our people will continue to wallow in poverty. The irony is that all suspected culprits under the NPP government have been cleared. Perhaps, due to politics of the situation, the current administration lacks morality/credibility to hold past corrupt government officials accountable.

Prevailing silence in individuals’ lives is also not the best 

Almost everyone has a story, but it’s only a few who want to vent by writing or speaking out – although it’s very therapeutic to do so.

A typical example is what has been happening with the royal family in England. People write books for different reasons, and whatever the reasons are depend on the author’s aims, goals, vision, motivation and even audience.

It’s easier for us to judge or think people who have gone through horrendous lifetime experiences talk too much. Perhaps that’s their way of healing, as it’s the case that not everyone overcomes trauma easily.

Everyone heals differently, everyone has different goals and visions in life – but one thing for sure is that societies around the globe have failed many children and families.

It is very shocking when one interacts with children or young adults with traumatic childhood experiences. A lot of them see their actions as a way of coping with the trauma’s pain. Its unfortunate societies judge people for who they are now and their journey in life.

It’s not always the case that silence is golden: maybe one can have alternatives as writing and getting burned; speaking to a professional or talking to a stranger – but not keeping trauma to oneself and be burning. Such a course is not healthy either.

In industrial relations, for instance, conflicts are sometimes required. It helps in shaping or reshaping the organisation. It’s called a safety-valve.

Remaining silent about issues that matter most can be tragic, and some of those tragedies are even fatal. It is important knowing when to bite the tongue. It’s definitely wise to know when to speak up and how to use the voice well. It is important not to run, hide, be a sheep or allow those around us to be sheepish. The book of Proverbs sums it up thus: “A soft word turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger”.


After reflecting on the key reasons for unhealthy cultures of silence, I will conclude on the observation that individuals are frequently convinced that keeping quiet is the best way to preserve relationships and get work done. However, silence can exact a high psychological price on individuals, generating feelings of humiliation, pernicious anger, resentment and the like – which, if unexpressed, contaminates every interaction, shuts down creativity and undermines productivity.

It is time for your voice to be found, appropriately and assertively – and help others to find their voice too. Together, key steps which makes all the difference can be taken, as a stitch in time saves nine. My expectation is that the enduring fundamental principles of life which ennoble mankind will be remembered when there is a temptation to remain silent on issues that really matter. I am not by any stretch of the imagination suggesting that you speak-up about everything going on around you. Some issues are just not significant enough to merit attention, let alone speak about them; and so it is simply not wise to sweat over same.

The writer is a Corporate Generalist and can be reached via 0244651663 or [email protected]

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