Four college students were on a road trip through the Midwest during their summer break. This was the time of Rand McNally's fold-out map – well before the days of GPS navigation – and the students had all worked together to map out their route.
During one particular leg of the trip, one of the students (who had grown up in the suburbs of Chicago) was put in charge of driving as they approached the city. As they approached the city, they realized that they had lost their way. They took an exit near a gas station, where they stopped to ask for directions and discovered that they had been headed the wrong way for the past 30 minutes.
After getting back on track, they started talking about how they had lost their way. To their surprise, they discovered that each one of them had a hunch they were headed the wrong way… but no one said anything for 30 minutes. The three passengers did not say anything because they thought the driver, a local, knew what he was doing. The driver did not say anything because he was afraid of being ridiculed by his friends for getting lost in his hometown, and instead decided to try to just keep driving.
I remember this story well because I was one of the passengers.
What really happened in this story is an example of reputational influence and psychological safety keeping us from sharing information with each other. The driver had a reputational influence over us – we saw him as being the most knowledgeable among us. This influence clouded our own judgment over his. The driver, on the other hand, did not feel psychologically safe sharing his thoughts with us. All of us kept our information to ourselves.
Luckily, in this case, the consequence was the loss of an hour of our time. But it is not hard to imagine similar scenarios in construction where the loss can be more consequential.
Imagine a construction crew led by a foreman. The foreman is considered knowledgeable, well-experienced, and well-respected by his crew. Let us now imagine an incident when the foreman unwittingly does something that may not be safe, and the crew members notice it. The foreman realizes that what he did is wrong. But, afraid of admitting his mistake and facing its repercussions, he does not say anything about it.
Although the rest of the crew members noticed the mistake, they didn’t speak up about it, neither then nor in the future. There are many reasons why this might happen: Some may stay silent because they are afraid of the repercussions of speaking up. Others may not consider the practice to be unsafe. Still, others might consider the practice to be unsafe but are questioning their judgment and might be wary about speaking up in a group setting because someone they respect and trust hasn’t said anything about it.
There are several scenarios that might have pulled the crew out of this vicious loop of silence. For instance, by admitting to his own mistake, the foreman would likely have removed the cloud of doubt enshrouding the crew members. Similarly, even one crew member speaking up might have given the others more confidence to t speak up, creating a cascade of information flow.
It is important to realize that each instance of silence has an impact not only on that particular safety incident or similar incidents but on every potential incident in the future. Therefore, it is imperative for organizations to ensure they have a thriving culture of speaking up.