Why Silence is Dangerous to Your Team

Ask just about any coach, regardless of sport, and they will likely admit that one of the major weaknesses on their teams in recent years has been locker-room leadership.

Too many athletes are not willing to have uncomfortable conversations with their teammates. Even when they know a behavior or attitude is damaging the team, players bite their tongue. But that silence is assumed to be consent.

When you don’t speak up, people assume you agree with whatever they are saying or doing. If it is only the coach saying it, and your teammate shrugs it off as you stand there quietly, then you are part of the problem.

In most cases, that quiet acceptance leads their team on a very destructive path. Following the leader is fine, but only if the leader is doing the right thing and going in the right direction.

In 1916 the French Naturalist, Jean-Henri Fabre, conducted an experiment with processionary caterpillars which move together in a long, single-file line, feeding on pine needles. They get their name from their habit of following a lead caterpillar, and follow the caterpillar ahead of them with their eyes half closed.

Fabre placed a group of these caterpillars on a flower pot, and got the lead caterpillar to connect up with the last one, creating a complete circle, which moved around the rim of the pot in a never ending procession.

He placed food in the middle, and thought that after a few circles of the pot, the caterpillars would realize the situation or get tired and move off in another direction. But the force of habit was too strong, and the caterpillars kept moving around the pot at the same pace for seven straight days. On the 7th day, they just gave out from exhaustion.

They quietly accepted and followed the path of the caterpillars ahead of them – doing what was customary or popular instead of what would’ve been productive.

People say that silence is golden; but when it comes to teams, silence is dangerous. The loudest team normally wins. No team ever lost because they communicated too well.

Great teammates are willing to speak up. Even though it might be uncomfortable, it is far better to have a little discomfort in the short term and say what needs to be said than to bite your tongue and suffer through the slower, but more devastating long term effects of allowing bad attitudes or behaviors to continue. 

Accept the short term discomfort of difficult conversations instead of suffering long term with regret. Great leaders care enough about the team goals to have uncomfortable conversations.

Maybe part of the problem is in how people view confrontation. Confrontation isn't supposed to be negative. Great teams are the result of productive and positive confrontations.

Parents discipline their children because they want them to be better people. And you should confront the people you care about if their behavior is sabotaging their success.

It says in Matthew 18:15, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained a brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses."

So when you decide to break the silence, and you are willing to confront the person face to face, there are 3 things you will need to share: acknowledgement, awareness, and assurance.

  • First – Acknowledge their contributions and that you care about them
  • Second – Make them aware of the behavior that needs to change and why… attack the problem behavior, though, not the person.
  • Third – Get their assurance that the behavior will change, and perhaps even agree on a consequence that is appropriate if there is a slip up in the future.

Remember that it is your honest concern about them and the impact that their behavior is having on the team’s ability to reach its goals that you are communicating.

Maybe it will take getting other teammates to join you in a second meeting if the behavior continues. That’s the next step, but the main thing is that you have the courage and integrity to speak up about the things that are important to you.

Don’t think that quitting, or avoiding the person, or gossiping about them, or that dropping hints is going to change anything. If you bite your tongue and keep going along, you’ll be just like those caterpillars… exhausted by lots of frustrating activity without enjoying any real progress.

Edmund Burke said: “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

Don’t look back and regret being a quiet caterpillar. Great organizations thrive on collaborative conversations and accountability. If your team isn’t talking, perhaps a fun business team building event could be a powerful catalyst to strengthen relationships and build a more engaged and connected team.

Regardless of your industry, silence isn't golden - it’s dangerous.

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