Leadership: An easy silence?

In an earlier post I was considering the difference between Feedback and Criticism.   If you are interested you can read about it here:

feb 2012 feedback-or-criticism

I was reminded of it a week or so back when I was with a few participants on a  short course. We were discussing some aspects of blogging. I am in a phase of very intense learning which I expect is going to last a long time.  A pattern of learn consolidate, learn consolidate, seems to work best for me.  I have to experience and play with what I am learning. I have to TOY with it. I appreciated the feedback I received, it was part of the learn consolidate cycle.

Giving and receiving feedback is essential to learning change and growth, for individuals personal relationships, as well as in teams and organisations.

You tend to find that there is more learning from the consolidation phases than you can easily quantify or imagine.  The feedback is unexpected and more powerful. The learning itself becomes much broader learning, as discernment comes into play. What started out as practising the skill you learned becomes something bigger when you DO IT  in real life. You start to generate different questions than when you were doing something in the simple process of learning it.

If you are curious many of those questions will be internal.  Whilst you learn in isolation you learn to accept silence. As you start to practice what you are learning in context – which means in public –  you start to experience feedback.

This feedback can come in many forms, from how your body feels as you start to change your diet, to how well your clothes fit when you stop exercising. The impact of your actions has an effect.
The effect you have is feedback.

When you change your actions because you have learned something new, there will be a reaction of some sort from the wider system. The same applies in teams and organisations. If you change the way you do something, hopefully it will have an effect, an impact on others, in the way you planned. It is also likely to have an effect in unexpected ways. Feedback will arrive. It might be in conversations to you, it might be with suggestions or complaints.

It also might be silence. Silence is a special sort of feedback and your job as a leader is to be sure what that silence means.

Acceptance: are people thinking “well yes that works, nothing to say, let’s get on with it” ? On the surface this could be a great thing, people are ” aligned” and “professional”. It could be a deep appreciation for the reasons and the context behind the changes and a realisation it is a good thing to do. If you work with a team like that the chances are you have spent time building up that level of awareness. People are getting on with it because they are 80-100 per cent behind it.

Have you spent that time? Are they 80-100 percent behind it?
If the answer to both those questions is an honest yes, the changes you are making have a very good chance of being successful.

My opinion isn’t important / what do I know: If you are working in an environment that requires “intellectual  capital” this is an attitude that MUST be explored. Is it a new inexperienced team member? Is the person losing confidence?  What factors might be at play that has led the person (or people)  you are leading to think their opinion doesn’t matter? How have you demonstrated their role is to think about and comment on what is happening because that is how THEY  and YOU and the ORGANISATION learn?

Apathy: This is evident when people  no longer provide any verbal feedback of any sort, no comments, no questions, no adjustments, no counter suggestions. Has there ever been a time when you did get commentary, questions and observations but it has all stopped?
Chances are the silence  is apathy. Apathy is very limiting. For the people affected it can be soul and career destroying. If you want your changes to have long-term positive impact, apathy is something that has to be investigated in its own right. What are the causes? Take the time to understand how and when the apathy arose. Don’t assume that the silence of apathy will still give your changes a good chance of success, it won’t. Apathy has a close neighbour.

Fear: People can be fearful for all sorts of reasons. Permanent fearlessness is a rare and potentially dangerous attribute. Even the most forthright people have times when fear sets in. Observant, intelligent people  ( the sort you want to lead right?) consider the consequences of their actions in advance. They learn from what has happened in the past too. Both of these qualities are essential for any success to happen. However if fear is the root of the silence and you don’t explore it, failure is likely. There is nothing inherently wrong with fear. This is evolution at work.  The emotion of fear is behind freeze, flight or fight responses. If Fear leads to silence anyone  of those responses could ensue. Silently

Not being able to function well – Frozen.

Not wanting to hang around, leaving early, doing the hours, resignations – Flight

Being angry, unhelpful and presenting obstacles that don’t need to be there – Fight

Silence is at best the result of conversation and deep mutual understanding. Which takes commitment and time and honesty. Only then will  the silence be an easy silence

Taking the time to reflect on the feedback you are getting, particularly if it is silence becomes essential when leading and making change happen. Investigate where the silence comes from before making assumptions.

And if you find you don’t like continued silence, give some of your own, in a generous and helpful way.

Feedback is the life blood of change. Donate


What effect does silence have on you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Feedback or criticism?

OK I admit both of those words are loaded and there is no one agreed separate definition. And yes you could argue that criticism is just a form of feedback.. Equally you could argue that most people see “positive feedback ” as criticism in disguise.

And then of course we’ve all been told that we shouldn’t be defensive . Often  this is when we feel we are under attack, so we get told to act inhumanly whilst being treated in an inhumane way ( or perhaps the lazy common human way)


The thing is, I think there is a difference and it is an important one. It is intent with effort.

So here are my personal  thoughts on the two words:

Feedback can come in many guises many of which are noticeably supportive, from a smile, a conversation, an email, a testimonial,  comment on a essay or in a meeting. It can be short or long. It can even be silence. Sometimes silence is telling. It doesn’t have to be positive, for its EFFECTS to be positive.

Criticism nearly always hurts (I’ll come back to that)

Spoken or written feedback takes consideration from the person giving it. It takes thought to decide what precisely to give feedback on, to decide why that particular thing you’ve chosen to feedback on is important and then how to do it. Even if the last bit of that process – the how to do it-  feels clumsy and painful to the recipient, the effort taken for the first  two bits acts as a useful  salve.  As the recipient you are aware somehow of the intent and the effort being made for you. Respect is being shown.

Criticism is often quite swift.

If you ask for feedback,  or if you have been asked to give feedback then there is a contract between you that gives permission to be clear and not evasive in the details. Often great mentors, chosen by YOU ( not self appointed!!!) give you this as part of living, breathing and conversing. As you do back.

If you are giving it unasked, on what basis are you giving it.?  Beware,  because it could be a criticism you are about to spout.

Also have you  REALLY given the thought to what and why you have the feedback to give.

You know when you’ve been on the receiving end of good feedback even if the content of it was full of negatives. You know because you can do something with it. It somehow opens up possibilities, even when it means “stop this because there is something else you can do.”

It’s not that I think all criticism is a bad thing. There are times when even though it is harsh, it might just be what is required to break the person out of  a pattern, or to indicate what you actually feel.  This is being authentic and there is no relationship if it is not real.  It is OK to agree to differ.  That way lies growth and exploration.

What isn’t authentic is when you hide your thoughts behind careful crafted messages that make it hard for the other person to OPENLY  appreciate what you mean. They can feel the pain, the sting, but there is nothing else solid to work with, just a sense of hurt, of insult.

In the end the power lies with the recipient, to do what they will with the feedback and/or the criticism.

We decide, we always decide ourselves in the end.

It is a funny, nearly dark, magical thing.

You know when you have been gifted something  that at first glance, on the first sting perhaps was hard to take, and aroused all maner of emotions and thoughts in your head. You know because somehow you stick with it and something else emerges.

It is reciprocal too. The more you demonstrate your willingness to give feedback, the more you encourage others to help you too.

Feedback is the lifeblood of change.



I would love to hear/read what you think about this. How you personally define the difference between them. Comments are enabled 🙂