Quiet Workplace Guide   //   December 5, 2022

WTF is quiet constraint?

This article is part of WorkLife’s Quiet Workplace Guide, that delves into the quiet working trend, and why leaders need to look beyond the buzzwords to the deeper people-engagement challenges behind them. More from the series →

There’s a communication blockage between employees. How long it’s been a problem is anyone’s guess.

Whether intentional or not, there is an undercurrent of poor information-sharing among co-workers, that can damage work culture and productivity if left unchecked. Experts have dubbed the act “quiet constraint.”

Game-based learning platform Kahoot! coined the term in its 2022 workplace culture report, which found that 58% of workers say they have invaluable knowledge that could benefit their co-workers, which they’re not always imparting, for various reasons. Call it a kind of verbal constipation.

Like all the other “quiet” somethings that have been spotlighted lately: quitting, firing, loafing, it might be starting to seem like slapping the word “quiet” in front of age-old working customs to make them appear new is pointless and opportunistic. But the flip side is far more interesting: seizing the moment in which nearly all employers are more open to rethinking and remodelling the purpose and experience of work for their employees, seems like the best time to highlight and root out bad work culture behaviors that have been allowed to fester for far too long. And when it comes to quiet constraint, remote and hybrid working aren’t exactly helping.

So, here’s an explainer.

What is quiet constraint?

Essentially, it refers to when someone withholds invaluable information that would benefit a colleague’s output. This can either be for selfish, toxic reasons, or it can be simply because an individual doesn’t feel comfortable enough in the working environment (like a virtual meeting) to share information.

“When people don’t have the connective tissue among their colleagues to feel comfortable sharing ideas, then people kind of hold back,” said Aaron Rubens, founder of e-card and workplace engagement platform Kudoboard. 

He’s talking about the kind of quiet constraint that isn’t intentional. It might be when you are in a large Zoom or Teams meeting and don’t feel comfortable sharing your knowledge, or it could be that Zoom for instance, isn’t necessarily the right medium to share the information easily.  

“Leaders want to create more synergy within their workplaces,” said Chris Holter, career and workplace expert and CEO of Chris Holter Consultancy. “It’s asking how do I get more engagement between my employees and more alignment.”

“When people don’t have the connective tissue among their colleagues to feel very comfortable sharing ideas, then people kind of hold back.”
Aaron Rubens, founder of e-card and workplace engagement platform Kudoboard.

Holter said quiet constraint is often perpetuated as a direct result of the working environment, and has evolved and increased with the rise of remote and hybrid work. “Sometimes they don’t have the venue or they don’t realize the information is important,” said Holter. “In other cases, people might want to demonstrate they can do a job themselves. It’s having information and not being forthright with it or not knowing how to share information.”

Why is quiet constraint dangerous for the workplace?

“It can lead to people not being willing to fully share their ideas, feedback, or thoughts,” said Rubens. “Ultimately, it leads to a suboptimal outcome. Whatever you’re trying to do it’s not going to be as good if you’re not getting the full spectrum of thoughts and feedback from the group.”

And suboptimal outcomes aren’t a good thing at any time, let alone with an approaching downturn.

Another thing that might make quiet constraint worse is if leaders only listen to the loudest voice in the group. Experts warn that just because someone is the loudest, it doesn’t mean they necessarily have the best ideas. 

“Any time you have a situation where people are feeling anxious, awkward or unwilling to speak up, you’re going to end up with a small, skewed sample of either the most senior people or the most extroverted people,” said Rubens. 

“You want to demonstrate that you are the expert. In those cases, maybe subconsciously you’re not sharing information because of the age-old principle that knowledge is power.”
Chris Holter, career and workplace expert and CEO of Chris Holter Consultancy.

On the other hand, if someone is withholding information intentionally, that could be a sign of a toxic workplace culture. 

“There can be a competitive work environment, where people have left jobs, gotten promotions, or are in big, new jobs and want to prove themselves,” said Holter. “You want to demonstrate that you are the expert. In those cases, maybe subconsciously you’re not sharing information because of the age-old principle that knowledge is power.”

Whether an employee is withholding information intentionally or not, it can lead to an overall lack of productivity, innovation, connectivity, collaboration and so on. Also, it could end up with multiple people working on the same task without information sharing, which isn’t efficient. 

How can quiet constraint be minimized?

Ultimately, leaders need to work extra hard to ensure that everyone feels comfortable sharing information and that they have the right spaces to do so. “Anything that you can do to make people feel a part of the team, part of the culture and able and willing to share, is powerful,” said Rubens.

He suggests one way to do that is sending out agendas to meetings in advance so that everyone has the opportunity ahead of time to formulate their thoughts. It’s a tool that is helpful for people who aren’t as comfortable with an off-the-cuff approach. During a meeting, there should be a couple of minutes after new information is shared for people to digest and respond to it rather than quickly moving on. Another option is to break meetings up into small groups, where people might be more comfortable sharing their information.

Rubens also suggests mindfully picking a facilitator for a meeting. If it’s someone who isn’t as senior, people might be more comfortable sharing with them compared to if it was someone in the C-suite, for example. 

Other than this, it’s also necessary to create a positive workplace culture where people can feel vulnerable sharing information.

Right, that sounds similar to maintaining psychological safety.

Yes it ties back to that – the ongoing need to ensure everyone feels comfortable and confident speaking their mind, without fear of repercussions of some kind. Holter recommends focusing on community leadership in the workplace, versus directing and telling people what to do. This would result in collaboration where people hopefully don’t withhold information.

In weekly meetings, a leader could also facilitate a time for everyone to share something they learned that week that might help drive results or with a major initiative. Or, there could be a Slack channel called business insights, where people can drop in new things they learned.

Aside from changing meeting dynamics, it would be beneficial to introduce team building activities. 

“Find a way to get to know people beyond just in meetings, creating a way for people to learn more about each other so people feel comfortable when sharing,” said Holter. “You can create culture, lean into the values and really accelerate to drive all the results and big goals you’re working to develop.”