Have you ever had a long-term care nightmare? Not the waking kind, where some horrifying facility crisis leaves you muttering, “This is a nightmare.”  

I’m talking about a real one, the kind that happens deep in your subconscious mind, while you’re asleep in your fluffy-soft bed …

… You’re a long-term care administrator, walking in slow-motion down a crowded facility hallway. With every step, another overhead light burns out, the people dissolve, and soon you’re alone in a pitch-black void. It’s quiet — way too quiet. You want desperately to run, but are frozen in place. As the choking silence closes in, your whispered “Help!” tumbles, inaudible, into the darkness …

For some leaders, that nightmare might seem too close to real. When your staff stop talking candidly to you, it can feel like you’re trapped in a sensory deprivation chamber with no visual or aural reference points. Maybe they still say good morning or make small talk, but everything is surface and cursory. They don’t seem angry, but they’re not happy either. Either way, they used to talk to you about it. But now they say virtually nothing, and just shuffle dutifully to their posts.

In personal relationships such as marriage or parenting, I’m told that nothing should be feared more than silence. The time to worry, the theory goes, isn’t when your partner or teen-age child is vigorously expressing anger or disappointment. It’s when he or she gets quiet that you should really be concerned. (Since I’m a fully-actualized and enlightened person, whose life has been one long victory parade of conflict-free relationships, I can only imagine how that might be true.)  

Sometimes you hear about idyllic workplaces where nobody raises their voices or vents a negative emotion, but I suspect they’re more likely reflecting an environment that stifles a sense of growth, participation and ownership. If your employees feel safe and free, all day every day, to raise issues of concern, vigorously complain or champion change, that’s probably a good sign. At least they’re communicating, caring and still trying to make things better.

Conversely, when your colleagues or staff get quiet and withdrawn, that’s a valuable warning that should be heeded. Other explanations are possible, of course. Maybe the big Xanax spill on Highway 15 has contaminated the facility’s tap water, or they’re the early victims of the Zombie Apocalypse. But more likely, they’ve simply given up on trying to be a force for transformation, and are on Glassdoor surreptitiously submitting resumes.

The warning signs can be as clear in the office or facility as they are in a marriage. Be concerned when the eyes turn opaque, when the expressions become inscrutable, when the inflections get passive and the words are trite. Beware when no one volunteers ideas for improved processes, or if complaints and frustrations are seldom verbalized anymore. Sure, it could mean you’re a beloved genius who has successfully created a workplace utopia — or that you’re losing your team.

In life, love or work, it seems to me we should always be obsessively consumed with ensuring the constant flow of honest feedback and insight. We should be begging for criticism, and relentlessly preaching the sanctity and safety of open communication — even if the result isn’t always what we want to hear.

Whether in a nightmare or horror movie, or on long-term care campus, the worst things seem to always happen when it gets too quiet. Because when you hear nothing, that says everything.

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He has amused, informed and sometimes befuddled long-term care readers worldwide since his debut with the former SNALF.com at the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.