This essay originally appeared in the collection End Malaria, proceeds from which go to Malaria No More. End Malaria is full of short yet meaningful posts by 61 amazing writers/thinkers. For more information or to buy the book (or 10), go to EndMalariaDay.com. [Really, do it.] HBR was also kind enough to break their rules and let me publish it there yesterday under a better title of “Silence Is Hurting Your Company”. If you want to comment, go there directly.
When I was an admin at Apple, I used to go to meetings and see the problem so clearly, when others could not. I didn’t think I had the right or the capabilities to speak this truth. I worried about being seen as too young, or too brown, or too female, or too uneducated to offer the solution to the group.
But mostly, I worried about being… too wrong.
So, I kept quiet and learned to sit on my hands lest they rise up and betray me. I would rather keep my job by staying within the lines than say something and risk looking stupid.
That was nearly 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve worked at or with companies like HP, Apple, Autodesk, Adobe, Symantec, Nokia, and with startups funded by Greylock, Benchmark, and Accel. And I’ve learned one simple thing. As companies are figuring out their tough problems — like which new markets to go into, or how to create the next generation products, or defend against a big-ass competitor — the thing that stop any of these good teams from being successful is not stupidity.
No, when an organization’ problems are tough (and interesting problems are all tough) the issue is rarely stupid people. Rather, what limits success, growth, and winning is something more like blindness. Blindness, as in we doesn’t know the whole context, or see an issue in its full complexity. As in, we are blind in not knowing what we don’t know. Smart people know how to solve most problems and so when they are failing, it’s usually the fact that we can’t see what we can’t see because we are experts and we stopped looking at it fresh a long time ago.
And perhaps you can identify how this happens where you work? Perhaps you were attending a new strategy rollout and you “knew” big chunks of it wouldn’t work. Or the latest re-org focuses on optimizing the delivery of X, when you know the market is really looking for Y. Or your leader never seems to address the one thing that is stopping a bunch of other things from being successful.
Maybe you’ve heard the hallway chatter such as “don’t they get it?” and “will they ever deal with this?” The thinking goes like this — the plan seems crazy and the issue is Z, but since it’s plain to me, well they must see it too.
But tragically, their blindness can make us silent. We conclude that a topic is mysteriously “taboo.” We say to our selves how busy we are, telling ourselves that the issue is theirs and not ours. If we do ponder what best explains the unmentioned elephant, we notice that one option obligates us to be a bearer of bad news to the powers that be. And what if we’re wrong? As Lincoln said, better to keep silent and be thought a fool, than speak up and remove all doubt. And so, in the end, 99 times out of 100, we choose silence. We don’t express our viewpoint and offer what we think could help.
And here’s the cost to our silence — when issues stay unaddressed, stagnant, broken — we all fail. We ship bad products, our brand suffers, and our company performance plummets. In general, things suck. Not just for “them” but for all of “us.” The cost of silence is suck-ness.
When we are silent, we are hurting the outcome. You see, minority viewpoints have been proven to aid the quality of decision making in juries, by teams and for the purpose of innovation. Research proves then even when the different points of view are wrong, they cause people to think better, to create more solutions and to improve the creativity of problem solving.
And so here’s the opportunity to avoid suck-ness, and the thing I’ve learned along the way to speak your truth without losing your job. Rather than saying, “This is the problem” which can risk looking the fool and quite possibly pissing someone off, ask this: “Could it be …that this is the problem?”
“Could it be” is a conversation starter, rather than an assertion. It is the way you put it out there without having to defend it. Could it be allows the issue to be a question for everyone. Could it be allows for a dialogue exchange rather than a yes/no argument.
The blind need you to see. The silence needs to be broken. And perhaps risking being the fool is necessary to move forward. Underlying all that is courage — Courage to speak, courage to risk, courage to step forward rather than sit quietly. Courage to break the silence and when you do, the blind will see, the different viewpoints will be heard, and we can reduce suck-ness where we work.
Could it be….you’re ready to speak up?