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Volkswagen’s new CEO must tackle this other problem

September 26, 2015, 3:00 PM UTC
Matthias Mueller, chief executive officer of Porsche AG, pauses during a Bloomberg Television interview during previews to IAA Frankfurt Motor Show in Frankfurt, Germany, on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. Mueller is one of the favorites to be the next CEO of Volkswagen.
Photograph by Krisztian Bocsi—Bloomberg via Getty Images

The latest automotive industry tragedy didn’t occur on a roadway. It happened at Volkswagen when it was discovered that approximately 11 million cars were rigged to evade E.P.A. standards known in the industry as “defeat devices.” The fall out is ongoing, with CEO Martin Winterkorn resigning in the wake of the scandal. On Friday, the automaker announced that Matthias Mueller would become its next CEO. While the former Porsche brand chief will likely spend the bulk of his first years expunging corruption, handling investigations and fixing cars to ensure Volkswagen’s survival, there’s another problem he will need to tackle: the culture of silence.

Cheating E.P.A. standards seems to be embedded in the auto industry cultural norms, dating back to the 1970s. But how does the culture reach a point where leaders gamble with the reputation of the entire organization and customers’ lives?

More broadly, these devastating and deadly consequences have roots in another corporate crisis not exclusive to the automotive industry. A culture of silence occurs when employees willfully withhold important work-related information. For example, Titanic engineers tried to get the attention of senior leaders about lifeboat safety. However, Joseph Bruce Ismay, the Titanic’s owner, admitted that the company’s senior leaders discussed the colors of the first class carpet for three hours, but discussed the lifeboat capacity issue for only 15 minutes. Given the time devoted to discussing the Titanic’s appearance and comfort compared to the time they spent examining the ship’s safety risks, engineers gave up and realized it was a futile effort – and the rest is a tragic history. What this Titanic, and Volkswagen, example means is that when your employees are silent — when you aren’t hearing any ideas or complaints — it might mean they are busy and engaged, but it might also mean that some critical communication channels — the ones that move information, improve processes and stimulate innovation — are blocked. In the worst-case scenario, employee silence might be threatening your organization’s survival.

Employees socially construct cultures of silence when they learn the norms of survival and prosperity in the company. If remaining silent about defects, and emission “defeat devices,” is the way to stay (psychologically) safe on the job, then the culture sustains the silence as a method of survival. Employee silence is either offensive (‘I’m not going to speak up to help you. I don’t have your back because I don’t think you have mine’) or defensive (‘I would be crazy to speak up. They shoot the messenger here’) or (‘It’s futile to speak up, so why bother?’).

Employees are unlikely to disclose their silence to their leader. What’s more, if leaders are genuinely trying to do their best for the company, it’s not likely that they will recognize whether they’re unwittingly sending a message that keeps employees from speaking up. That’s why leaders need to understand the root causes of destructive employee silence, realize the impact on knowledge transfer, and recognize the symptoms. A culture of silence can be deadly to for any business because it slows or stops knowledge transfer – the movement of tacit information between employees for the purpose of problem solving and decision-making.

Ultimately, a culture of silence boils down to how employees receive and perceive a leader’s actions and the organizational processes and symbols that have been put in place; this culture is apparent in Volkswagen. A place to start understanding employee silence is with your own actions and the beliefs and values that drive them.

Leaders can recognize signs of silence as a first step in moving toward a culture of voice – the positive opposite of the culture of silence phenomenon. A culture of voice is often associated with high levels of innovation and rapid problem solving. If those characteristics are important for you as a leader, it is time to answer some questions to determine the likelihood that you are operating in a culture of silence.

  • How many times in the past two months, in group meetings, have you received the “Bovine Stare” – the blank look from associates when you ask for input?
  • In the past two months, how many associates have openly disagreed with you in a group setting?
  • In the past three months, how many associates have approached you with a proposal for a new process for improvement, solution to a problem or an innovative idea?

The answer to these questions may indicate the presence of a culture of silence, and perhaps can tie back to the silent culture at Volkswagen. Leaders can also shape a culture of voice by practicing basic leadership dialogue. The practices should not be superficial – leaders must examine the root cause of their behaviors and the impact they have on the contribution from employees. The practices below can help your associates feel their voice has merit.

  • Build up ideas rather than tear them down and avoid playing “devil’s advocate” (unless you have a solid relationship with the associate with whom you play this game).
  • Ask for input in group settings and wait 45 seconds before you assume that silence means agreement or “no comment.”
  • Examine your “openness” to different and varied experiences. Your “openness” is major factor in your attitude toward divergent thinking.

Shaping and sustaining a culture of voice is good business and leadership practice. This culture is the best way to encourage knowledge transfer, and was clearly missing from Volkswagen’s business practices. The CEO might’ve stepped down, but what’s next? It’s important now more than ever for leaders to recognize that eradicating a culture of silence is every leader’s job.

Rob Bogosian is co-author of Breaking Corporate Silence with Christine Mockler Casper, who is the founder and principal consultant at RVB Associates, Inc.