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Low Morale, Stalled Productivity, Apathy: Could Silent Barriers be Undermining Your Business Success?

By Francine Carlin |

"We've employed best management practices, involved people in strategy development and implementation, and worked hard at communication. Yet we're not seeing the results we should, and employees don't seem to care. What are we doing wrong?"

Meet Dave. He's one of the many executives I have worked with in the private and public sectors who have felt frustrated and confused at their lack of progress despite implementing technically sound ideas.

No matter how much energy organizational leaders put into infrastructure and management improvements, their efforts are mere window dressing if they fail to identify and address the silent barriers lying at the heart of the problem.

Silent barriers are negative attitudes and behaviours - gossip, apathy, favourtism, competitiveness, anxiety - that lead to mistrust, disrespect, misunderstandings, cliques, and other counterproductive workplace situations.

Most organizations simmer with these obstacles, but rarely address them openly - to their own disadvantage. When ignored, silent barriers can become embedded in an organization's culture, producing serious inertia to change and undermining even the best of business plans.

This was the situation Dave had unknowingly inherited when he joined his organization as a change agent a year before we met. In his first nine months on the job, Dave had implemented tested improvement strategies and held change management workshops for staff. He had overseen the renovation of the organization's offices into a bright, airy, and comfortable space. It was the kind of work environment most people would love.

But not Dave's bunch. The first time I walked through the office, I noticed that no one was smiling. Customers were greeted with indifference. Employees were reluctant to help each other. A general feeling of apathy pervaded the whole space.

I mentioned my observations to Dave as we sat down over coffee. "I know," he agreed, proceeding to share a few notes of his own. His list included all the classic symptoms of silent barriers at work:

  • Employees who seem to wish they are elsewhere.
  • Customers complaining about bad attitudes and sloppy service.
  • Little camaraderie in the workplace, or exclusion of certain people.
  • A "not-my-job" attitude preventing people from helping each other.
  • Grudges that fester.

After finishing with his litany of issues, Dave shared some stories about his autocratic predecessor, and how employees still seemed to carry resentment about days gone by. "I think our biggest problem is that some people are still living in the past," he said.

He was partially right: events of yesterday were likely contributing to today's issues. But another probable factor was Dave's own aggressive approach to change.

The executive sitting opposite me looked surprised when I voiced this theory, but he didn't protest. "What do you suggest we do?" he finally asked after a long pause.Fortunately for Dave and his team, acknowledging the presence of silent barriers is the first step to identifying and, ultimately, overcoming them. I recommended an established approach for work teams to uncover the specific silent barriers lurking in their organization, and positively confront them to reach business and individual goals.

Although each organization's unique needs influence program specifics, the approach usually involves four main steps:

  1. Give people the opportunity to speak their minds in a private, confidential way.
  2. In a safe group setting, acknowledge the issues.
  3. Once the silent barriers are identified and acknowledged, develop a concrete action plan for moving past them.
  4. As a group, revisit the action plan at regular intervals to address new or resurfacing silent barriers.

As we will see in Part 2 of this story, Dave adopted the recommended program in full, setting in motion a sometimes difficult, but ultimately rewarding, process of discovery for him and his staff.

Tune in next month for Part 2 : The four-step program to identify and address silent barriers to business success.

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