By Nilofer Merchant (Contributing Writer, Harvard Business Review) It was said of Abbot Agatho that for three years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent. I was thinking about that story by Thomas Merton during a recent board meeting. The CEO and CFO were marching through their 112-slide presentation. Recent market updates, a technical deconstruction of various trends, then product frameworks — all in quick succession. One board member sighed deeply. Another glanced surreptitiously down at the BlackBerry in his lap, perhaps thinking no one would notice. Some of the other people at the table were staring out the window at the gray day. It was not a highly engaged moment — but it was an all-too familiar one.
Is this a case of PowerPoint burnout or BlackBerry addiction? Or was there something more meaningful happening? Were they, I wondered, placing an imaginary stone (or two or three) in their mouths? What if this scene was not a demonstration of apathy but the application of wisdom?
Early on in our careers, we might speak up without concern or context. Or we might be reticent to speak up, fearful of what others might think, perhaps remembering the famous quip attributed to Lincoln: "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt." Or perhaps we have wondered, as others have, if it's worth the cost of speaking up. Enthusiasm, naïveté, fear of repercussions, conformity to the group norms, and even wisdom are all things that can influence whether someone speaks up or not.
Perhaps the question is less "should I speak up?" than "when should I speak up?" To that end, we can ask ourselves more nuanced questions, like:
- How will it improve the process?
- Do I know something that will benefit the organization?
- Of course, underlying all that...does anything need to be said at all?
Seen with that context, the board's silence could be a deliberate choice. In complex organizations and complex times, we face complex choices. We don't get to optimize all products, go after all markets, or add all programs. There are choices to be made in dollars and resources and even if we make our opinion known. Each person could be biding their time until a private closed-door moment, or they could be letting the rest of the presentation unfold before jumping in. The choice to stay quiet may very well be a good one.
Or their passivity could be a state of denial, an unwillingness to engage debate, avoiding unnecessary conflict, or fear of standing out from the others. And that would be a bad thing, especially when it comes to the cost to the organization.
Because silence does have a cost. When great debacles get dissected, very often the underlying tension of why the issue went wrong was that no one spoke up. It happened during the Kennedy Administration's Bay of Pigs fiasco when "groupthink" carried the day. And it happened again when the Challenger space shuttle exploded during liftoff because of a poor decision-making process. Perhaps the recent BP oil spill, the largest marine oil spill in history, would have been avoided if the right dialogue had taken place; many within the organization knew their well casing and blowout preventer were insufficient but the organization decided to skate ahead anyways.
Whether you're on the board of directors, or an individual contributor in a weekly staff meeting, knowing what to let slide and what to make an issue of, what to bring up publicly and what to raise privately, requires wisdom and judgment. Underlying that wisdom and judgment is the moment of conscious choice when we decide to speak, or to hold our tongues.
When is the time for you to speak? Let me share three crucial criteria:
- When it will improve the results of the group. Minority viewpoints have been proven to aid the quality of decision making in juries, by teams, and for the purpose of innovation. Research first published in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that even when the minority points of view are wrong, they cause the rest of the group to think better, to create more solutions, and to improve the creativity of problem solving.
- When it gives others permission to speak their truth. An interesting study of conformity put people into groups and arranged for a majority of the group to lie about the length of a line. When the majority lied without opposition, 70% of those tested capitulated and passively went along with the incorrect group assessment. But when a single dissenting voice was introduced, only 30% went with the group majority answer. In other words, when one person had the courage to speak their truth, it gave permission to the others to have and own their truth.
- When the costs of silence are too high. This final point is more subjective than the first two. Only you know how to answer the question, "Is this worth it?" When do you allow others to determine what you believe and say to be true? If it is an issue of justice or integrity, or when the implication to getting things wrong could affect many, perhaps the cost is too high for silence. In those times, for the sake of your organization and for your own integrity, it's time for you to say something.
There are times when what we say or don't say impacts our organization's ability — and even our own ability — to succeed. And it's rarely as clear as someone handing you some stones to put in your mouth, or whispering that it's time to take them out. Knowing when to speak is an art, and like any art, requires skill. But it's a skill worth pursuing.
This post was originally published at Harvard Business Review.
About the guest blogger: Nilofer Merchant is a corporate advisor and speaker on innovation methods. Her first book, The New How, offering a handbook for setting direction collaboratively to achieve results, was published in 2010. Follow her on Twitter at @nilofer or sign up to get her blog at blog.nilofermerchant.com.