A “spiral of silence” is what German political scientist Noelle-Neumann (1916-2010) termed a situation where the majority has an opinion but are afraid to express it because they think they are in the minority. They think they are in the minority because the mainstream media is reporting an opposite point of view. Because that view is in the news media, the majority think they are in the minority because, well, if it’s in the media, then that’s what must be true and that’s what everybody’s thinking. And so the majority stays increasingly silent and what’s actually a noisy minority view dominates. Dominates decision-making, idea formulation, and many issues affecting the majority.
Today Noelle-Neumann’s theory has taken on gigantic proportions what with social media, the Internet, and the nano-second explosion of “going viral” messages. But it is also manifesting within organizations who run slick and greasy public relations machines.
Internal communication is vital to all workplaces and many places treat this topic with honesty, integrity, and respect for all opinions. But many don’t. Over my decades in organization development and corporate communication I have witnessed, and still see, many organizations putting a lot more spin than traction in their messages to employees (I confess to once being part of that spinning). Those at the top actually believe their spin doctors, who act like shamans and soothsayers from the past, when told that employee thinking will change “for the positive” and both behaviors and attitudes will transform with a clever bit of branding and snappy prose. Of course there is no beef under the brand–mostly bull.
Sadly, the spin cycle works. I have often witnessed employees bombarded with slick “multi-channeled” messages of blue skies and butterflies actually believie that their contrary views are wrong. That their perception of a toxic, disrespectful workplace is some twisted perversion of their own misguided personality. That because the “messaging” from multiple corporate sources and channels ranging from YouTube to Twitter and e-newsletters is all bright and good, they are dwelling in a lonely dark cave of negativity. And those that share their twisted views must also be negative nellies.
And so they stay silent. And the majority of employees who feel like they do stay silent. Those who believe they are bullied, harassed, and treated with disrespect stay silent because, after all, the corporate news of the day is saying that all is good, and here are examples of real people to prove it. And so the spiral of silence keeps spiralling, re-enforced by a harsh and sometimes punitive backlash to any contrary thought. But it is even worse than that.
I have counselled and worked with many employees, caught in the spiral of silence, who do not simply think they are in the minority (when they are in the majority). They begin to doubt themselves. Begin to doubt their value, their intelligence, their skills, and their very sense of self. I have seen this condition result in deep depression, isolation, anger, conflict, and emotional pain.
Back in Noelle-Neumann’s day those caught in a spiral of silence often refused to share their opinions with others for fear of looking like idiots and not mainstream. Today, social media–the same social media which contributes to the spiral–is also a tool for reversing the spin. If brave enough, we can blog and tweet and post and find allies. The challenge is to identify the beef from the bull.