Many years ago I wrote a blog post about marketing that was contrary to a client’s opinion at the time. Their training manager emailed me with a rebuke. She wrote: “You’re committing political suicide.” Furthermore, I was “biting the hand that feeds you.” I was intimidated and afraid. It was threatening. I removed the post. I’d like to think that the blog resulted in a few conversations as to whether I was perhaps a little bit right in my thinking. Someone suggested that we all collaborate. That never happened. In their world there was no room for dissent or opinion that wasn’t along party lines. They used fear, authority, and intimidation to suppress an opinion. I was a character in an Orwell or Kafka novel.
Two weeks ago a young social media assistant shared her opinion that the company’s content strategy was directionless and occasionally sexist. “But I can’t tell the boss that because of his relationship with “Ted.” She shared her ideas based on credible research and then resigned herself to the status quo and her perception that challenging authority was a very bad career move.
I interviewed two very capable customer service representatives and their manager. It was clear that they were gauging their answers based on the tacit approval of their manager. After each reply their eyes quickly shifted to and from the manager. Was it a good answer? Did it expose the manager? Were they saying the right things? Were they going to get in trouble?
Self-censorship hinders organizational innovation and collaboration. It happens because of fear or because the traditional org chart lets you know who is and isn’t able to contribute to the “big” decisions. It happens when managers polarize their authority and work to protect it and therefore value (“don’t make me look bad!). Perhaps these are natural by-products of the traditional top-down business culture in which a person is told what to do, how to do it, what they shouldn’t do and why. Lest we forget the striking similarity between 19th century elementary school desks and industrial era factory benches.
In our current era of creative destruction smart companies should evaluate the degree to which self-censorship happens among employees. Innovative ideas–some good and some bad–are everywhere in a company. But the only way to make “good” and “bad” determinations is to allow the ideas to be shared in the first place.