Rise Above the Silence

When you see someone doing something wrong or unsafe, what counts is what you say and how you say it.

Rise Above the Silence

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So you see a colleague violating a safety procedure while operating a combo vac truck. Or breaking an office ethics protocol. Or doing something as simple as not wearing a mandated mask or refusing to socially distance during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given most people’s propensity for avoiding conflict, it’s undoubtedly tempting to just let things slide. After all, who wants to be perceived as that person on the office team or field crew — the one who thinks they’re perfect and always calls out other people on the error of their ways?

Fortunately, however, you can have it both ways, as in speak out and hold people accountable while still maintaining good workplace relationships. The trick is to do it with the right motivation and attitude — and to hopefully work at a place where management builds a culture where accountability is prized, says Joseph Grenny, the co-founder and co-chairman of VitalSmarts, a national leadership-training organization.

If you’re one of those people who finds speaking out is as difficult as cleaning a sewer line with a toothbrush, you’re not alone, notes Grenny, who’s also a four-time New York Times bestselling co-author of business books. (Titles include Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High; Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior; and Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change.)

“We’ve spent more than 30 years talking about the consequences of avoiding crucial conversations, which is absolutely ubiquitous in the workplace,” he observes. “So many of the common complaints in our lives have roots in our inability to handle these crucial conversations.”

It’s not easy

Why is speaking out so hard to do? Part of it stems from the way we’ve been hard-wired to think pessimistically about outcomes from confrontations. “That mentality served us well in prehistoric days when we were constantly faced with physical threats,” he says. “But it doesn’t serve us as well now, when we have to deal more with social challenges.”

Moreover, the worst outcomes we can imagine rarely ever happen, he adds.

In other instances, employees feel like it’s not their place to tell others what to do or how to act. Or they figure it won’t do any good. Or they don’t know what to say or how to say it without being offensive.

But in the long run, there are downsides to ignoring such transgressions. For starters, if you don’t talk things out, you’ll probably act it out, creating a downward spiral of trust and repressed anger that can destroy team morale. “It all gets expressed one way or another through things like sarcasm and resentment,” he says.

Second, problems avoided typically turn into chronic issues that can create damaging ripple effects in the workplace. As an example, Grenny cites hospital-acquired infections that stem from something as simple as medical personnel not washing their hands.

“It becomes a chronic problem through the unwitting consent of people around them who don’t say anything,” he notes.

Of course, there’s always a chance things can go sideways when someone speaks out about something in the workplace. “But if you don’t say anything at all, it never goes well either,” he points out. “Things such as employee retention and strong engagement are all strongly tied to workplaces where people speak up about emotionally and politically risky things.”

Timing is everything

So how does one go about handling these delicate situations? First of all, don’t wait and don’t go to your boss first. Research performed by VitalSmarts shows that in high-performance organizations, issues get handled at the moment they occur and between peers, Grenny says.

“Escalations (going to a supervisor) almost always end in failure,” he explains. “They’re unnecessary political and social behaviors that drag down the process of managing a fairly straightforward and logical process.”

Also keep in mind that to achieve good results, it pays to ensure your motives are right — a mindset Grenny calls “kind to remind.” In fact, Grenny says the best indicator of how a crucial conversation will go is the reason you want to have it in the first place. If you want to punish, belittle or prove you’re right, expect it to go badly.

“Too often we behave in ways that prevent the outcome we want,” he says.

On the other hand, good things happen when you speak from a sense of kindness. “Positive intent is a huge indicator of how well things will go,” he explains. “Before you open your mouth, you need to pause and think about what you really want. If it’s a legitimate concern, ask yourself what you want for the other person so you’re not coming from a selfish place.”

Accept complaints gracefully    

If you’re on the receiving end of the criticism, it’s crucial to assume what Grenny calls an “attitude of gratitude.” In other words, politely accept any reminders to follow certain safety rules or office protocols and assume they’re being expressed with good intent.

Organizations can help enforce this mindset by creating a culture of accountability — a place where it’s the norm to say, “OK, thanks for the reminder,” whenever someone speaks out about, say, a safety violation.

“When such a response becomes a cultural norm, it reduces the emotional stakes involved,” Grenny explains. “It’s not hard to create such a social contract, but very few organizations do it. It takes training and presentations and leaders who are willing to reinforce and model it.

“It’s kind of like getting a train started,” he continues. “It requires enormous energy at the beginning to get it started. But after that, it’s easy to sustain.”

Last but not least, after people speak up, they then need to let things go, understanding that they cannot control the colleague’s response. “Don’t turn it into an ego match or a test of wills,” he advises. “Deliver the message, and then look out for your own safety.

“Most of us in those moments attach our self-worth to whether or not the other person agrees with us or complies,” he adds. “But we don’t need to do that. Just do what you’re supposed to do in a graceful way and let them handle it how they handle it.”

If this approach doesn’t work, then it’s OK to take the matter up the ladder to a supervisor or someone in human resources or a safety department — whoever has responsibility for the respective issue, he notes.

In the long run, inaction is not the best option. When handled the right way, speaking out trumps silence. As Grenny points out, “The inability to do so adversely affects every workplace outcome we care about.” 


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