Last month, an article with the provocative title, "Elephants in Academic Medicine," by Souba et al addressed the anechoic effect, but was unable to discuss what people in academic medicine cannot discuss.(1)
In summary, the authors surveyed chairs of departments of medicine and surgery at all accredited US medical schools to ask about the "elephants in their living rooms." By this they meant the problems which people are unwilling to discuss at their medical schools. Their goal was to assess "organizational silence" in academic medicine, as they discussed in their introduction:
Morrison and Milliken popularized the term 'organizational silence,' which refers to the collective-level phenomenon of doing or saying very little about the problems facing an organization. Organizational silence derives both from people's fears of negative feedback and from a set of behavioral cues adopted by supervisors that lead to structures, procedures, and processes that discourage speaking up. Two common structural features of organizations that foster organizational silence are centralized decision making and a lack of formal feedback mechanisms.
Some organizations face an apparent dilemma in which employees know the truth about specific problems within the organization yet dare not speak that truth to their superiors. A key factor that fosters the creation of a climate of organizational silence is senior leaders' fears of receiving criticism, especially from subordinates. The unwritten message from the top is 'No bad or unpleasant news.' Fearing retaliation or the label 'not a team player' if they speak their minds, subordinates become silent; even if they do speak up, they may discover that their feedback is disregarded. A culture of silence becomes ingrained.
The investigators sought to learn from these academic leaders:
(1) What are the major elephants in your AHC [academic health center]? (2) What do you believe to be the most prevalent reasons people do not speak up? and (3) What are the consequences of remaining silent?
The survey response rate was 55%. The major elephants, in the order that they were ranked by the participants, were
- misalignment between goals and available resources
- ignoring information that clearly indicates a performance problem
- unwillingness to give up on a failed strategy
- unwillingness to speak up about inequities (e.g., pay, space, favoritism, special deals)
- failure to deal with disruptive behavior
The wording of these items were chosen by the investigators. The survey allowed for respondents to write in additional items, but the paper did not discuss any such responses. Its discussion of the results did not further define the nature of any elephants.
In addition, survey results suggested that more open discussion is unlikely to be in the offing.
- The majority of respondents thought that the elephants were someone else's problem:
Both chairs of surgery and of medicine believed that elephants are more commonly ignored by deans and hospital leaders than by other department chairs or themselves. Surgery chairs were more likely to say that hospital leaders ignore elephants, whereas medicine chairs were more likely to say that deans disregard elephants.
- The majority thought that other leaders did not encourage discussion of elephants:
Only 52 of the chairs (37%) said that elephants are usually discussed in an appropriate venue, whereas 87 (63%) said that elephants are discussed in less constructive venues or not discussed at all. Less than a quarter of the chairs (32; 23%) reported that the top leaders at their institutions actually encourage people to call out and deal with elephants. More commonly, the chairs (77; 55%) reported that the top leaders of their institutions say they want people to be frank about elephants, but their actions or nonverbal cues indicate otherwise. A higher percentage of medicine chairs than of surgery chairs (16 of 53 [30%] versus 16 of 86 [19%]), said that top leaders pretend that elephants do not exist.
- An important minority did not think the elephants were a problem at all:
nearly a fifth (26 of 139; 19%) agreed that, indeed, some issues are best left undiscussed.
- While the majority favored discussing elephants, they did not think it would be easy to do so:
two-thirds (92 of 137; 67%) felt that creating a culture in which elephants are openly discussed would be very or moderately difficult.
Their and Our Discussion
It was particularly striking that an article about elephants in the living room did not more fully describe what sorts of elephants they were. The descriptions of elephants above, taken verbatim from the survey instrument, were vague. They were not clarified in the discussion section of the article.
Particularly lacking were the sort of nasty elephants described by Pololi et al in a qualitative study of barriers to the advancement of primary care faculty.(2) As we summarized in our letter,(3) these elephants included academic leaders who put revenues ahead of patient care, teaching, and research; and who allegedly used deception for personal gain. Also lacking were nasty elephants we have discussed on Health Care Renewal. We have discussed examples of self-interested, conflicted, and corrupt leadership of health care organizations, including academic medical institutions.
I am glad that Souba et al brought up the topic of elephants in academic medicine's living room. However, I am disappointed that these elephants were never clearly identified. It seems that while we are getting to the point of being able to say there are things we cannot say, we are not yet at the point of saying what those things are. The strength of the anechoic effect is demonstrated by cases in which we cannot talk about what we cannot talk about.
Souba et al concluded:
We believe that AHCs are designed, often subconsciously, to keep the range of conversation limited to a few voices, usually the voices of those in power. The powerful silence the voices of others because they consider others' views to be either contrary to the status quo or of limited value.
We would add that those in power often may value the status quo not merely because of philosophical conservatism, but because maintaining the status quo supports their self interest. In particular, it has become increasingly lucrative to be in a leadership position in a health care organization, even in a non-profit academic institution. Executive compensation at these institutions has been rising inexorably, driven by increasing institutional relationships with corporate health care. Individuals in leadership positions in academic medicine frequently have their own, increasingly lucrative financial relationships with the health care industry. (A study by Campbell et al showed that the majority of department chairs, like those who answered the survey above, have such relationships.) Ever increasing hunger for institutional and personal revenue may lead to a variety of practices that are hostile to the academic and professional mission. Discussing any of these aspects of the status quo may offend and threaten those who are profiting from it.
However, as long as we cannot even talk about such problems, the problems will only get worse.
1. Souba W, Way D, Lucey C, Sedmak D, Notestine M. Acad Medicine 2011; 86: 1492-1499. Link here.
2. Pololi L, Kern DE, Carr P, Conrad P, Knight S. The culture of academic medicine: faculty perceptions of the lack of alignment between individual and institutional values. J Gen Intern Med 2009; 24: 1289-95. Link here.
3. Poses RM, Smith WR. Faculty values. J Gen Intern Med 2010; 25: 646. Link here.
4. Campbell EG, Weissman JS, Ehringhaus S et al. Institutional academic-industry relationships. JAMA 2007; 298: 1779-1786, link here.]