Hollywood’s complicit silence: how to cultivate a culture where people feel safe to speak up


Hollywood’s complicit silence: how to cultivate a culture where people feel safe to speak up

Are we more disturbed by Harvey Weinstein’s behaviour, or the culture of complicit silence which has now tumbled out onto the world’s stage?

Sadly, this form of endemic silence is neither unique nor difficult to cultivate culturally. It can swell up under the surface, gaining power every time someone chooses to do or say nothing about a situation they are morally uncomfortable with. Whilst the focus of the press has predominantly been on Weinstein and the allegations made against him, there’s a bigger question that also needs to be addressed about the culture of Hollywood and the corporations that rule it.

It’s the same with any organisational culture, each time nothing is said or done about certain behaviours, decisions or implied values, the culture shifts slightly. As this inaction continues, old timers in the system become condemned and gradually made complicit by their silence, whilst for newcomers, its ‘just the way things are around here’ and ‘there’s nothing you can do about it’.

So, what can you do to ensure your culture has integrity and that people do feel safe to speak up?

Individual courage

As an individual, speaking up requires a significant amount of moral courage. It comes down to you making a core decision around who you are, what you stand for, what you are willing to risk to ‘do the right thing’ as you see it and ultimately the type of person you want to be.

Everyone contributes to the culture that is created in an organisation, and it may not always be about the big dramatic decisions, but sometimes the little decisions you make every day in how you choose to interact and react to situations and the status quo.  

Shaping the system

For an individual, the decision is in your hands, but as a leader how do you create a culture with integrity? How do you shape the environment so it prompts people to have the courage to speak up when situations arise?  How do you make sure the values on your company’s website are lived and experienced day-to-day?

Before you can create a suitable environment, you must first acknowledge why people stay quiet. Research has shown that three key beliefs typically prevent people from speaking up;

1. The belief that you’d be putting yourself at significant risk (e.g., embarrassment, being ostracized, or loss of      resources)1,2,3,  

2. The belief that speaking up is futile and not worth the time 4 

3. A sense of inappropriateness (e.g. that it is not that person’s place to speak up).5

To create an environment which nurtures integrity, leaders need to directly challenge these beliefs both explicitly in their communications and system processes, and implicitly in their behaviour.

More precisely, leaders should empower people to feel that it is their responsibility speak up and convey how, in this culture, speaking up is both expected and desired. It should also be made explicitly clear how there are fair processes in place for issues to be raised with minimal risk to the individual.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly of all, leaders throughout the organisation must either take action on an issue or report back why further action can’t or won’t be taken in this instance; there must be no instance where an issue gets raised and no response from ‘the system’ comes back.


1. Williams, K. D. 2001. Ostracism: The power of silence. New York: Guilford.

2. Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

3. Morand, D. A. 1996. Dominance, deference and egalitarianism in organizational interaction. Organization Science, 7, 544–556.

4. Detert, J. R., & Edmondson, A. C. (2011). Implicit voice theories: Taken-for-granted rules of self-censorship at work. Academy of Management Journal, 54, 461-488.

5. Nembhard, I. M., & Edmondson, A. C. 2006. Making it safe: The effects of leader inclusiveness and professional status on psychological safety and improvement efforts in health care teams. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27, 941–966.

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