The trouble with silence at work

A Harvard professor details how companies suffer when managers and workers avoid tough issues

We're all susceptible. Perhaps we've fumed about a co-worker but avoided a face-to-face discussion with the individual. Or we've glossed over an important difference of opinion because an explanation just took too long.

Leslie Perlow didn't set out to study this phenomenon. But as an anthropologist of corporate culture, she had the opportunity to be the proverbial fly on the wall during the 19-month life cycle of a dotcom. Founded by a University of Michigan student who had taken one of her business classes, the company posted lecture notes online from colleges nationwide.

Professor Perlow didn't know that she was watching the company self-destruct. Only toward the end - as she looked back at what people had told her behind one another's backs - did she realize how much the leaders had refused to communicate honestly about issues as important as the company's core purpose.

Wondering if it was just a feature of the fast-paced dotcom world, she began talking to people in other occupations about what she dubbed "silencing conflict" - not malicious or deliberate dishonesty, but the various ways people try to preserve relationships by not fully confronting differences.

Along the way, she found that everyone had a story to tell, at all levels of organizations' hierarchies.

Now an associate professor at Harvard Business School in Boston, she details her discoveries in her new book, "When You Say Yes But Mean No: How Silencing Conflict Wrecks Relationships and Companies ... and What You Can Do About It." Perlow recently shared some of her insights with the Monitor.

What do you mean when you say that conflict can be constructive?

In our colloquial speech, conflict has a negative connotation. But differences of opinion and perspective are incredibly important in many kinds of work.

It's not the case in all work. If it's the military and I tell you "Go," I don't want to hear your difference of opinion. But creative work takes synergy - where we actually consider differences and build on them. If only one person raises an idea, even if the group doesn't follow it, the mere fact that it was brought up causes them to stop, reflect, and have a conversation.

The point is not about agreement but about mutual understanding. If people are looking for agreement they might never get there. There's a reason we have managers at the end of the day.

What are some examples of "silencing conflict" that you observed?

Every week [at a Fortune 500 high-tech company], there was a project management meeting, the PMM, where people would update the project leader. There was a lot of pressure to come in with PowerPoint slides and talk about how well they were doing.... It was a rosy picture.

People would complain bitterly about how much time it was taking to prepare these reports. But they would never, ever dare say anything to the project manager.

[The project manager himself] called it the Painfully Meaningless Meeting, behind closed doors. He said "I have it because I want to show my direct reports how important it is to be on schedule and that I support them."

If they had a conversation, they actually would all agree that this doesn't make any sense. But nobody's going to open up ... because they think there's something at stake.

Performance feedback is another example - and not just the formal one once a year. If things aren't going well, we often, as the superior, feel uncomfortable pulling aside the subordinate and having a conversation about it.

We have a deadline, and then the deadline passes and we don't really remember. And we're actually hurting the subordinate. [If we don't] share that information, they're certainly not going to improve.

How much influence does a leader have to lessen the level of silencing in the workplace?

Often we think, it's the senior person's job, but anybody and everybody can make a difference.

That said, the leader plays an important role. One thing I see over and over are leaders who say they want a culture of openness ... and then they don't model the behavior.

Frequently they'll have an open session and then ask if anyone has questions. If you raise a question, or if you bring them negative information, those are the critical moments. If at those moments they'll respect you and treat you well, it's very effective - and everyone's watching. If they don't, they can say what they want about a culture of openness, but no one will believe them.

Can people avoid what you call "spirals of silence"?

I'm optimistic, because there's enough evidence that if you are able to seek mutual understanding, there is a real potential to make a difference.

We often think, should I speak up or should I not? We might think: They're not going to listen to me anyway, so why speak up? But it's important to recognize the cost of not speaking up. Your silence is undermining the relationships [you want to preserve]. If you speak up early and in a nonthreatening way, [the other person, even if it's your boss] might be more receptive than you think.

What do you hope your research will accomplish?

To me, this project is successful if people start thinking, in every one of their interactions: Is this one of the places I should speak up?

There are a lot of books about what to do when it rises to the level of conflict, [but] we should focus on things before they get big - anything that's potentially going to affect the task or your trust in the other person.

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