Last month, I wrote about the price of silence during organizational or interpersonal problems at work. Avoidance of important conflicts or failure to confront a problem can be extremely costly for both the employee and the organization, potentially leading to underground resentment or anxiety, increased insecurity, damaged relationships, and the decline of creativity, motivation and effective decision-making.
I called such silence “the snake under the rug,” referring to a story from organizational systems authority Peter Senge. So how do we let the snake out from under the rug and keep ourselves and our organizations safe and well functioning once the snake’s been released? How do we know when it’s best to speak up and how to do it effectively?
Start by asking yourself how important the matter is. Many of us are uncomfortable with raising difficult issues or with confronting another, so we decide to set it aside and move on. Unfortunately, deciding and actually doing it are two different things. Ask, Will I really be able to set this aside and forget about it? Will I care about this problem in the future? Is this small problem potentially representative of a bigger issue that has been avoided or ignored? Certainly you don’t need to raise every little disagreement, because doing so can bog you and the organization down and cause others to see you as someone who can’t understand the difference between important concerns and those small, daily annoyances we all experience.
Pick time and place with care. Raising a problem or disagreement at the time of a deadline, for example, can mean that your concerns not only can’t be well attended to, but that you inadvertently raise the stress level problematically. Choose a time when you’re calm and when the others involved have the time and space to listen to you. Generally speaking, you also want to choose a private location, as raising a problem in front of a large group—such as in the company’s cafeteria at lunch time—can cause the other person to move much more quickly into defensiveness.
The Harvard researchers I mentioned last month had a wonderful parable about the time it takes to confront difficult situations at work. A farmer had a wagon full of apples. He stopped a man on the side of the road and asked how far it was to market. The man replied, “It’s an hour away if you go slowly.” He continued, “If you go fast, it will take you all day.” There were bumps in the road and if the farmer went too fast, his apples would bounce out of the wagon as he sped over the bumps. So, he’d spend a lot of his day stopping to pick up the apples.
In an era of multi-tasking and pressure to get things done at work, it’s very tempting to ignore or avoid conflict in the name of efficiency and productivity. But such thinking is usually short-sighted if the conflict or difficulty is an important one. Time spent dealing with a problem at the front end usually means time (and emotional energy) saved later on, because ignored problems don’t usually go away—they get bigger or become the snake under the rug.
There are things that organizations can do to help create a culture that discourages the spiral of silence: Supervisors should be taught not to punish, explicitly or implicitly, those employees who raise important matters; it will actually reflect more positively on supervisors when creativity and decision-making improves as the result of effectively expressed differences. Give employees the explicit encouragement to speak up, even create time in meetings for contrary perspectives to be shared and discussed. Help employees develop the skills to confront effectively and give them latitude to improve when they don’t do it very well at first.
Individuals can also contribute to a more open workplace environment: Develop the courage and commitment to speak up about things that really matter to you. Start cautiously at first if this is uncomfortable territory for you. Don’t take the easy way out. As the Harvard researchers point out, it feels easier to blame the other person, sit back and expect them to make the next move. But in any conflict there are at least two contributors—and you’ve got to be willing to take the first step sometimes. Recognize that while your superiors have formal power over you, you also have power. For example, the success of the organization is influenced, in part, by how well you’re able to contribute.
Breaking the spiral of silence can result in a workplace that has the feel of fresh air, full with possibility and a place we want to be. And with practice and commitment, raising difficult matters becomes easier and begins to become part of the woodwork in an organization, a normal and welcome part of a well-functioning workplace.
This article was originally published in my regular column for The Monadnock Ledger.