Vocal Silence

Vocal Silence March 6, 2014

Michel Anteby’s Manufacturing Morals is an “ethnography” of the Harvard Business School. It’s an odd book, very insight-the-HBS, but along the way he develops the intriguing notions of “vocal silence.”

Routine seems to rob individuals of responsibility. But most routines, Anteby points out, require some degree of responsible judgment: “Police officers can . . . selectively include or exclude pertinent details in their arrest reports. . . . hiring and budgeting routines can take on various meanings depending on who performs them” (7-8). Routine doesn’t necessarily produce irresponsible drones and paper-pushers.

Some routines don’t merely allow for responsible judgment but require it. The more silent an organization is about specifics, the less direct guidance the higher-ups provide the subordinates, the more the underlings are responsible for filling in the blanks: “a routine that calls for an instructor to grade students’ assignments without higher authorities having specified any evaluative criteria qualifies as organizational silence. . . . . a routine that calls for doormen to screen visitors for security risks without higher authorities specifying what such concerns might entail constitutes organizational silence” (8). Harvard Business School is, he argues, organizationally silent. Vocal silence at least encourages the “perception of self-determination,” whether or not it actually provide opportunities for moral responsibility (9).

Organizational silence is not complete silence. It is vocal silence, and it vocalizes its expectations by indirect signs and signals. New faculty members rely on cues from more experienced faculty and staff. An assistant who takes on certain menial duties is signalling that the faculty member has, and should be devoting himself to, more important tasks (106).

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