Overcoming Silence: A Guide to Fixing Conversational Debt

Discover key strategies for leaders to address conversational debt, foster open dialogue and strengthen team dynamics to get you closer to organizational success.

Steffan Surdek
April 29, 2024
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In my previous article about overcoming conversational debt, we took a deep dive into this idea that missing conversations and unresolved issues accumulate within your teams. We explored what it means, common symptoms as well as strategies to address it to create a foundation for healthier team dynamics and better communication.

But what happens when these missing conversations start affecting not just individuals, but the entire fabric of your organization?

The answer to this question unveils a more insidious side of conversational debt, one that calls for a deep dive of its own: The hidden cost of conversational debt to your team, and potentially even to your organization. When you do not address it, it can significantly impact the performance and morale of your team.

Imagine a team with limited or even strained communication between team members, where silence often represents unexpressed thoughts and feelings. In an environment like this, the very foundation of teamwork and trust is in jeopardy. Imagine the cost when your organizational culture begins to shift towards quiet withdrawal, disengagement and lack of innovation.

The original article looked at the surface-level symptoms of conversational debt. In this one, we will dive into the hidden costs associated with it. We will look at how conversational debt chips away at your team's effectiveness, enthusiasm, and emotional well-being.

What are the hidden costs of conversational debt?

When conversational debt accumulates in your teams or your organization, the impacts of it show up more and more over time, but rarely with a clear cause. The true cost of these missing conversations shows up in ways that transform the landscape of your organization.

Let’s explore some of the hidden costs that leaders need to look out for:

  • Eroding trust and team cohesion: Trust is usually the first casualty of conversational debt. As a leader, you probably strive to create safety for your team members to openly express their thoughts, concerns and ideas openly to others. When there is no trust and safety, suspicion and doubt will start setting in.

    The lack of transparency and open communication can undermine your team's cohesion. Members start to question each other's intentions and commitment to team goals. Over time, this erosion of trust causes your people to hold back instead of speaking up. It will also make it more difficult for your team to effectively work together.

  • Decreasing employee engagement and satisfaction: Long-standing conversational debt can bring your employee engagement and satisfaction way down. When your employees or colleagues do not feel heard or seen by others, they are much more likely to disengage from their work. Their disengagement affects their productivity as well as the quality of their work.

    More importantly though, it can lead to strong team players quitting because they are miserable and feel like things will never change. As you may know, the cost of replacing these employees – not just financially but also in terms of the knowledge the organization loses – can be staggering.

  • Impeding innovation and problem-solving: Innovation thrives when your people can freely share their ideas and perspectives as well as have healthy debates. Conversational debt can stifle your team discussions. Instead, it creates a culture of conformity and silence where your people wait for others to tell them what to do.

    When your team members hesitate to voice new ideas or to challenge the status quo, it compromises your organization's ability to innovate and solve problems. It leaves your organization trailing behind your competitors as you are unable to adapt to changing market demands and opportunities.

  • Amplifying conflicts and misunderstandings: The fear of conflict is one of the major contributors to conversational debt. Ironically enough though, the missing conversations tend to intensify existing conflicts and misunderstandings between people.

    When your team does not resolve issues early through open discussions, problems fester and grow, leading to larger conflicts that become much harder to manage. These conflicts consume your time and energy, damage your team dynamics and divert your team from doing something more productive with their time.

  • Impact on Organizational Culture: The most insidious cost of conversational debt is the long-term impact on your organizational culture. A culture that lets things fester and encourages silence over open dialogue slowly starts to tolerate a lack of accountability and even incompetence.

    Over time, this shift affects your organization's culture and reputation. It can make it more difficult to attract and retain top talent who look for transparent and dynamic workplaces.

What is the impact of conversational debt on your team dynamics?

A lot of the hidden costs we just discussed can have a big impact on team dynamics. They do not just strain individual relationships, they also change the way team members interact, collaborate and work towards their common goals.

Often these begin in subtle ways before they turn into more significant and disruptive patterns. Let’s explore the impacts from conversational debt that you can pay attention to in your team dynamics:

  • Decreased collaboration and creativity: One of the earliest symptoms of the impact of conversational debt you can notice is a decline in the collaboration and creativity of your team. As the debt grows, your team members become more guarded and less inclined to share ideas or offer feedback. This often comes from a fear of starting conflict or being criticized by others.

    When you see your team members retreat into their silos, it not only lowers their innovative capacity. It also lowers the quality of solutions and ideas your team generates.

  • Increased competition or conflict: What happens when conversational debt begins to erode trust and safety within your team? Competition and individualism start to overshadow cooperation.

    You see team members using their contributions as ways to further their individual career instead of aiming for collective success. This can lead to increased conflict as your people seek recognition and influence at the expense of others. These conflicts are often rooted in assumptions and missing conversations. They can quickly escalate and damage the cohesion and productivity of the team.

  • Less trust and respect: Trust and respect are the foundation of effective team dynamics. Conversational debt truly acts like a slow-burning acid. Although its effects are subtle at first, it eats through the vulnerability-based safety people feel on your team.

    Once this happens, you will see your team members begin withholding opinions and concerns. They will also dodge difficult conversations and stop being vulnerable with others. At this point, the mutual respect that feeds a healthy, dynamic team environment starts to disappear. This leads to a cycle of defensiveness and withdrawal, making honest communication even more challenging.

  • Shifts in team identity and purpose: The deepest impact of conversational debt by far is on the identity and sense of purpose of your team. As you may know, your team's strength lies in your collective commitment to a shared vision and goals.

    As you start being aware of how conversational debt fuels miscommunication, you may see how it affects your team's sense of unity and shared goals. Team members may start questioning not only their role on your team but its overall direction and efficacy. This will sap your team's motivation and engagement, and impact their ability to achieve goals.

What effect does conversational debt have on your organizational culture?

Earlier, we identified its impact on organizational culture as one of the hidden costs of conversational debt. What begins as missing conversations here and there can over time evolve into a widespread cultural norm where you come to expect team members to remain silent. The shift towards a culture where people no longer speak out or challenge the status quo profoundly impacts the operations and future of your organization.

Let’s dig deeper into how conversational debt can impact your company culture:

  • Culture of silence: At its core, conversational debt is about the missing conversations in your organization. One of the big ways the culture of silence begins is avoiding uncomfortable conversations with colleagues. Imagine for example someone on your team who arrives late every day.

    The members of your team may be frustrated and probably expect you to talk about it with that person. When no talk or actions ensue and nothing changes, your team members learn to stop talking about this topic. Eventually, the lack of consequence may actually encourage others to adopt the same behaviours.

  • Fear over innovation: When your organization is mired in conversational debt, fear starts to take over the drive for experimentation and innovation. Your team may start to view offering new ideas as a risky move rather than an opportunity for improvement and innovation.

    This mindset based on fear can cripple the ability of your organization to adapt to market changes. It will prevent you from exploring new possibilities or implementing creative solutions to complex problems. Your organization will start to lose its competitive edge and resilience in the face of industry challenges as well.

  • Little growth and adaptability: If you notice your organizational culture is affected by stagnation and fragility, these are the biggest indicators conversational debt. For your organization to be at peak adaptability, you need a continuous flow of communication, feedback and dialog.

    Without this, your organization will find itself unable to pivot in response to external or internal pressures. This not only impacts product development but also extends to the personal growth of your team members. Unfortunately, this accelerates the cycle of disengagement and turnover.

  • Less competitive edge: Ultimately, the pervasive effects of conversational debt gnaw at the foundations that make your organization competitive in the first place.

    An organization seeping with conversational debt becomes a breeding ground for missed opportunities, unchecked assumptions and unchallenged inefficiencies. As a result, your organization not only falls behind its competitors but also risks its long-term viability in an ever-evolving market landscape.

10 Strategies for Leaders to Address Conversational Debt

In my last article, I gave you some strategies to address conversational debt on your team. Let’s focus on some additional strategies you can use based on the topics we discussed in this article.

Here are 10 practical strategies you can start using to reduce conversational debt:

  1. Begin taking steps to address your existing debt.
    What are some of the topics that are currently up in the air or that people leave unresolved in your organization? Make a list and create opportunities to have conversations around some of these topics with the relevant audience.

    For example, this may be some conversations you need to have with your management team or even with everyone in your department or organization. Sometimes, this may not need to be an actual conversation, it could also be an email where you bring clarity to people.

  2. Create safe spaces for conversations.
    Develop forums or meetings in your organization dedicated to open dialogue. These are the places where team members know they can discuss or bring up issues without fear of retribution.

    This can take multiple forms. It could be regular team retrospectives, open forums, “ask me anything” sessions or “town hall” meetings. The key is to make sure these spaces are genuinely safe by putting in place ground rules that protect confidentiality and respect all contributions.

  3. Foster a culture of feedback.
    Work on cultivating a culture where people at all levels of the organization can offer feedback. Focus on encouraging people to give each other feedback for positive behaviours that reflect the values of the organization. Also focus on giving constructive feedback for behaviours that do not.

    Learn to concentrate the feedback on observable behaviours. This makes the feedback more tangible and understandable for people. Leaders should model this by openly asking for feedback on their actions and responding to it in a healthy way.

  4. Lead by example.
    As a leader, you should set the tone for everyone by engaging in the behaviours you want to see on your teams. This means being vulnerable, admitting mistakes, and openly discussing their own challenges.

    When leaders demonstrate that it is safe to be open and honest, it creates safety for others on their team to do the same. Be sure not just to model the comfortable and safe behaviours. Show your team you are willing to get out of your comfort zone and be uncomfortable too.

  5. Address issues promptly.
    Conversational debt consists of those conversations you brush away or leave unresolved. The best way to address them is to tackle them early to not give them time to accumulate.

    Encouraging your team to resolve conflicts immediately can bring clarity and prevent misunderstandings from escalating. When you do this, call out the potential for conversational debt with your team and ask them to help make this conversation as constructive as possible.

  6. Promote transparency in decision-making.
    You need to involve team members in decision-making processes wherever possible as early as possible. This transparency helps demystify leadership decisions, reduces rumors and speculation, and encourages a more engaged and committed team.

    This also creates other potential champions in the organization that people can turn to for clarity. The people that were part of the decision-making process will be able to support you with others in the organization looking for clarity around the decision.

  7. Recognize and reward open communication.
    This can be part of the culture of feedback, but it is worthy of its own separate point. Acknowledge and reward the times where team members contribute to breaking down conversational debt.

    You can notice this behaviour in your team members when they are speaking up about a difficult issue, offering a new idea, or facilitating a crucial conversation. Taking the time to recognize these actions reinforces their value to the team and organization. Doing this will encourage other team members to step up and take action in the future.

  8. Train on effective communication and conflict resolution.
    Offer training sessions that focus on building communication skills. This includes active listening, nonviolent communication, and conflict resolution techniques.

    Equipping your team members with these skills will help you all have more constructive conversations together. Pair this with regular opportunities to practice these skills as a team. This will help prevent the build-up of conversational debt.

  9. Put in place psychological safety measures.
    Vulnerability-based trust is the backbone for creating safety on any team or in any organization. You want people in your team or organization to feel safe to take risks and express their thoughts, without fear of embarrassment or punishment.

    Call out behaviours that you see that may cause people to shut down or to hold back their opinions and ideas. Invite people that you know are holding back on speaking to share their ideas. Give them the space to do it in group settings.

  10. Focus on continuous learning and improvement.
    Integrate continuous learning and improvement into your organizational culture. Reducing and addressing conversational debt is not about being perfect all the time. There will be moments when you try to have a conversation and it will not go well.

    The goal is not to be perfect, the goal is to focus on creating spaces where it is safe to have healthy conversations and healthy conflicts together. In those moments when conversations break down, acknowledge it with the people around you. Try to refocus the conversation to make it more productive or postpone the discussion to another time where people will feel more ready to have it.


Understanding and addressing conversational debt is pivotal for any leader aiming to cultivate a thriving organizational culture. In this article, we explored the hidden costs that conversational debt imposes on team dynamics, innovation, and organizational culture. We talked about how this silent adversary can erode the very foundations of success and growth for your organization.

The good news is that working towards addressing your conversational debt early can dramatically transform your organization. You want to foster an environment that celebrates rather than just encourages open, honest communication. This can unlock the full potential of your teams and steer your organizations towards a future marked by collaborative success and adaptability.

Remember that the journey to overcoming conversational debt and nurturing a culture of openness and transparency is ongoing. It requires commitment, courage, and continuous reflection from leaders at all levels. But the rewards—a more engaged, innovative, and cohesive team—are well worth the effort.

In what ways have you noticed conversational debt impacting team morale and productivity? What immediate actions can you take with your team to start reversing this trend?

Are you ready to tackle conversational debt in your team and transform the way you communicate and collaborate? If you're looking for personalized guidance or wish to explore tailored strategies for your team, I'm here to help.

Contact me for a consultation, or visit our coaching page to learn more about my coaching services. Together, we can turn conversational challenges into stepping stones for team success.