Organizational Silence and Hidden Threats to Patient Safety

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Abstract

Organizational silence refers to a collective-level phenomenon of saying or doing very little in response to significant problems that face an organization. The paper focuses on some of the less obvious factors contributing to organizational silence that can serve as threats to patient safety. Converging areas of research from the cognitive, social, and organizational sciences and the study of sociotechnical systems help to identify some of the underlying factors that serve to shape and sustain organizational silence. These factors have been organized under three levels of analysis: (1) individual factors, including the availability heuristic, self-serving bias, and the status quo trap; (2) social factors, including conformity, diffusion of responsibility, and microclimates of distrust; and (3) organizational factors, including unchallenged beliefs, the good provider fallacy, and neglect of the interdependencies. Finally, a new role for health care leaders and managers is envisioned. It is one that places high value on understanding system complexity and does not take comfort in organizational silence.

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