When to speak up and when to shut up

Sometimes, silence is golden. Sometimes it isn’t. When deciding, consider two things: the point (or the issue) and the relationship. Ask yourself which is more important. When they’re both important, it’s worth investing time and patience to speak up and reach an agreement you’re both satisfied with. When neither is important, speaking up probably isn’t worth the effort.

Smoothing over differences of opinion that affect the way you work together and sweeping problems under the carpet generally lead to continued and even worsening problems. Silence is golden here only when the issue is unimportant or the relationship is vastly more important than the issue. Otherwise, silence, especially when it’s at the expense of something that is important to you, when it makes you feel uncomfortable and when it negatively effects your team or its results, is almost certainly a poor choice.

On the other hand, remaining silent when you cannot win is golden silence. Consider your other options first, though–you’ll feel better about your decision to not speak up that way.

Even when it seems you both want something different, speaking up can be a good idea. Some differences are only superficial and there is often more than one path to a goal. You can usually work through the issue so that you both end up with a solution that works for you both. Look for common goals and common ground, by, for example, zooming out to the bigger picture or zooming in to a more detailed picture.

When the irritation is about someone’s personality: their quirks, traits, habits, mannerisms, or their general personality style or approach, it’s generally best to hold your tongue. You can’t change someone’s personality to suit yourself, so overlook these differences or learn to live with them. The exception is when a team member’s quirks or habits impinge negatively on the rest of the team; then you need to speak up and point out the effect you observe their behaviour to have on the team.

Disagreements over values are usually quite difficult to resolve, making silence a golden possibility. The best action is often to recognise that everyone is different and you can’t change another person’s values any more than they can change yours and you may need to respectfully agree to disagree. The exception is when a team member’s values run counter to your team’s or organisation’s culture or rules and regulations, such as matters to do with ethics or working when under the influence of alcohol or drugs. These are important issues and you must speak up.

Silence can be golden when you hold your tongue to wait until the time is right before speaking up, or until you can find a quiet place to talk or until the other party has time to talk. Unless, of course, it’s a workplace dignity or safety issue, in which case you must speak up straight away because these, too, are important issues.

With important issues, then, particularly those that concern team members or others you see often and want to make sure you can work well with, or issues that concern work performance, silence is definitely not golden. In these cases, silence is not a way to show leadership or to build great relationships and it certainly isn’t a way to build a productive team.

Management, like life, often comes down to choosing your battles. Make your choice based on the importance of the issue and the importance of the relationship. And when you decide to speak up, do so with kindness and tact. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Show you’re on the same side by sitting next to, not across from, the person you’re speaking with; when that isn’t possible, sit at 90 degrees. This simple action powerfully puts you–literally–on the same side and makes the conversation progress more smoothly. Make your joint goals explicit and use the word ‘we’ a lot to show you’re in this together.