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Trust and teams: When is silence a virtue?

Trust and teams: When is silence a virtue?

by Moyra Mackie on March 8, 2014

I’ve been sitting in a circle for 3 ½ days.  And sometimes it has been a very quiet circle.

Which has led to me wondering, how silence – or not speaking up – contributes to group cooperation and outcomes.

And what it says about how much we really trust each other.  And trust ourselves.

Every day we sit in circles

Whether it is round the breakfast or dinner table, or round the boardroom table or polycom speaker.

Forming a group: anxiety or excitement, trust or with-holding?

My circle was made up of 18 other people.  Heavy in the air was that mix of anxiety and excitement, guaranteed to take you back to your first day at school, that time you sat on the sports bench waiting to be picked or your first day in a new job.

Which brings to mind the Tuckman model on the phases of team development.

Forming, storming, norming and performing

Forming, storming, norming and performing

In order to become high-performing, the group has to move through the storming phase where conflicts arise as personal agendas, preferences and unmet needs emerge and clash with group goals.

When groups form it is important to belong

As I joined this circle, I was once again reminded that we are programmed from an early age to belong, to “fit in”.  We have a drive to be accepted, making us cautious and watchful in the early stages of our interaction.

We are instinctively calibrating how we are being received, and what our place is, in the group.

How we feel and act in the Forming stage

How we feel and act in the Forming stage

When groups form much is left unsaid

Consciously or unconsciously we censor what we say. What if we say something that hurts or angers someone?  This could lead to rejection and perhaps endanger the cohesion of the group.

The bigger the group, the harder the forming stage is

During the 3 ½ days, I joined and left groups of many sizes.  The smaller the group, the quicker intimacy could be established, as I found it easier to read the signs of acceptance and tolerance and to build trust.

The large group circle where we began and ended every day was the toughest because that is where the differences between individuals became most noticeable.

The circle was for sharing our thoughts, feelings and lessons learnt 

But to do so, carried a personal risk.  The size of circle, with that large open space in between, trigged ancient responses of fight, flight or freeze.

When invited by the tutors to speak and to share, not everyone did

Very often, it was the same few people who consistently spoke up and the same few people who rarely spoke up.

Anyone who has met me will not be at all surprised to know that I was in the speaking up group.

Even at the time I was conscious of a quote attributed to Aristotle:

“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”

Now, the “being nothing” is a bit harsh I feel, but being silent certainly reduces the risk of being criticised.  I know that some people in the group were critical of me, and the other one or two people who consistently spoke up.

But here’s the thing – I’m OK with that.

Silence might help individuals, but speaking up should help both the individual and the group

And by help, I mean helping the group to gain a new perspective on an issue and increase understanding of individual needs and values.

A high-performing group needs a leader who changes as the group matures

The Tuckman model makes clear that the Forming Stage requires a more directive and clear leadership style to “hold” the group and make them feel safe as they navigate difficult emotional territory.

This is not the style of our Masters Program – where the process is as important and illuminating as the outcome.

So we may never as a whole group become “Performing” – who knows?

But out there – where you have circles to join and groups to guide –  if you are in a leadership position, it is important to recognise what is needed from you to move the group through conflict to a more dynamic, creative and energized place.

Silence is not a sign of deep thinking or a of a lack of opinions or a sign of active listening

Silence is a virtue when we sit on our own and try and still our busy minds.  But silence is not what a group needs most.

Do you agree?

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie helps leaders and teams to work with courage, compassion and creativity. She is an executive coach and consultant and the founder of Mackie Consulting.

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