Monday, May 21, 2012

Don't Rush to Fill the Silence

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This is one of the toughest lessons I've had to learn as a leader. And it is something I still don't always get right. In a staff meeting, on a conference call, at the Board table--there are invariably times when silence occurs, when a difficult issue has presented itself, and everyone is looking for someone else to suggest a solution.

Don't do it. It will be tough because you will want to fill that silence. You will want to keep the ball rolling, or worse, show everyone how smart you are, or how much power you have. You will abhor that silence because you will view it as the enemy, as an indication that the issue that caused it is insurmountable, capable of derailing your plans and your organization's objectives.

But the silence is not your enemy. The silence is there to teach you something, and you need to listen to it carefully if you are going to benefit from its lesson.

The next time the silence occurs, use it as an opportunity to step back. Step away from the problem that supposedly created it and look at the context in which it lives. Not always, but frequently you will find that the reason no one is suggesting a solution is that your organization is not properly positioned to solve it. There isn't some new process, in other words, that can be brought to bear on the problem. There is a fundamental lack of organizational capacity to adequately address the problem. And that is something no one wants to talk about.

What happens when you rush to fill the silence with a process-based solution is that it masks this deeper problem. You may look like a hero, and others may support your solution, but it keeps you from addressing the real issue. And your job, as a leader, is not to come up with all the answers. It is instead to identify all the real problems.


  1. Silence is keeping the ball rolling for people who favor introversion. During it they are reflecting, checking themselves, formulating their thoughts. The fact that those of us who are extroverted learners see it otherwise is a potential problem.

    Nice post and reminder.

  2. Thanks, Jeffrey. I suppose one can think that silence is to the Board table what sleep is to the brain. A time for it to knit together all that is has taken in throughout the day and make new meaning out of it.