Embrace Silence

In a Group Setting: The Power of Silence

In a group setting, silences can feel intimidating and anxiety inducing. We often cringe at the thought of having people just sit there, saying nothing. The impulse therefore—especially as a team leader—is to intervene; to break the silence.


The Dependency Trap

The influential English psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion saw that groups tend to have underlying tendencies (he called them "basic assumptions") that hinder a group's ability to reach its goals. He called one of these assumptions "dependency"—a dynamic in which the group members behave passively, expecting the leader to make all the decisions and "take care" of them. An example of this dynamic is when the leader poses a question to the team, only to be met by docile silence.

Why Silence Can Be Good

As a team leader, being the one to fill every silent moment creates an environment which fosters "dependency". The group becomes accustomed to the manager calling all the shots, and gradually relinquishes more and more control to him or her. The team becomes less effective, and struggles to function when the manager is not around.

Empowering Your Team: Strategies for Leaders

  1. Talk Less, Listen More

    Let the team marinate a bit in uncomfortable silence. Don't try to jump in and save them. In time, this will empower them to speak, and be able to act independently of you. At first they will do it to break the silence, but eventually it'll just become the new normal—they will learn that their voices are as valuable as yours.

  2. Let Others Shine

    Let others speak, even when you think you know the answer. Firstly, you'll sometimes find out that you, in fact, did not know the answer. But even when you do, having someone else propose it will serve two functions: you've raised someone else's profile, and you've acquired an ally. Both will help the group make better decisions, especially in the long term.

  3. Embrace Change and Pushback

    Model accepting pushback and changing your mind. The team needs to see that them talking and disagreeing with you is not just for show. If you want the group to not be dependent on you, they need to see that their opinions matter. One of the best ways to ensure that they do, is to be persuaded by them. If you propose one thing, a team member proposes another, and hers is the one accepted, you've shown the group that you value a good decision being made more than you value being right.

  4. Empower Decision Making

    Allow others to have the final word. As managers, it's tempting for us to bookmark every discussion. Being the one to close each conversation can be seen as a sign of strength—having the final word makes the decision yours, in a sense. Avoid this temptation. Enable others on the team to be the ones to conclude a discussion. You'll empower the group to make decisions in your absence, and you'll witness new leaders emerge.

There are other ways to avoid the "dependency" trap, but they all begin with speaking less, listening more, and embracing the silence.