The Cost of Speaking Up – Conflict and Communication

You probably have first-hand experience of conflict and issues with communication, and you have likely struggled with whether you should speak up, or not.

As an executive and leadership coach, I regularly hear of the problems people face in getting heard, the ‘right way’ and I even teach a class on conflict and communication at Singapore Management University, but if you think this means I don’t mess up, you would be mistaken. In this post I will share a framework and my own experience because I have come to realize:

“We teach best what we most need to learn.”

Culture, gender, age, and personality are just some of the factors that complicate communication and lead to conflict. I am a nearly 60-year-old, university-educated, white male, whose personality is high on directness and only moderate on diplomacy. I work with both Asian and North American clients and yet the challenge to speak up without causing conflict is a common problem.

The Cost of Speaking Up

A few years ago, I was working with a Texas-based Computer Hardware company that had a plant in Singapore. One of the company’s leadership principles was ‘Speak Up’, but not surprisingly this was not happening. Forgive me for the stereotyping, but in general, the more the extrovert and direct Texans encouraged their more reserved, introvert, and collective Asian colleagues to speak up - the quieter they became.

The cost of this silence was that creative insights were not shared in meetings, and possible problems were not flagged resulting in a loss of productivity and competitive advantage. The cost to the individuals was that they were not considered ‘leadership material’ and their careers stagnated.

I ran a survey with the managers and have repeated this survey many times with other groups, and this list is the top ten reasons why people don’t speak up.

  1. We don’t want to hurt their feelings
  2. They will misinterpret what we say
  3. They won’t be receptive
  4. It will put our friendship at risk
  5. We will be open to retaliation or counterattack
  6. There’s nothing in it for us
  7. It could backfire, and the problem could get worse
  8. It could escalate, and we don’t like conflict
  9. We’ll be out on a limb and won’t be supported
  10. Nothing will change anyway

Whether this cost is real or imagined, the mindset that speaking up is risky is very prevalent.

I recently called out a fake Covid-19 post on a professional speaker’s group. Whilst everybody agreed that the post spread false information and was off-topic, I was attacked for calling it out a public post publicly. Now, there is a maxim that is full of wisdom when it comes to human sensitivities:

“Praise in public, admonish in private”

This however doesn’t help when we need to speak up and disagree in a business meeting or public forum.

Psycho-logical Safety

Patrick Lencioni in his book 5-Dysfunctions of a team notes that we need trust before we can have healthy conflict. Google’s own research showed that Psychological Safety was the most important factor in high-performance teams, and the Radical Candor approach recognizes that we must demonstrate support before we can challenge.

The mistake I made in the professional group was assuming that a) it was a group of professionals who welcomed robust discussion and b) my past service in support of this association would frame my intent as positive.

The learning from this is that we are always dealing with human beings, and:

“Humans are not logical, they are psycho-logical”

Meaning that we do not respond to the world as it is but from our mental-emotional map of how we perceive it to be.

Create the Frame to Speak Up

When we need to speak up or disagree must frame our perspectives, careful to avoid people feeling that their world view is being threatened. Because if there is an opportunity for someone to take your communication as a personal attack, they probably will.

The challenge for the Computer Hardware Company was that in Asia there is a strong frame of hierarchy, “I won’t speak up if there is somebody more senior than me in the room” and the concept of ‘Face’, “I will lose face if my idea is rejected of criticized”.  

I helped the company to set a frame, that there are no bad ideas, and good ideas are independent of position in the company. This frame was set at the beginning of ideation meetings and all participants were encouraged to be open and supportive.

You can set a frame by starting your communication with the “In terms of…X” where X is a shared value for the parties. I should have started my post with, “In terms of supporting the growth of Professional Speaking…”

Frames help people contextualize the issue and not take it personally.

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit

One of Amazon’s leadership principles is, “have a backbone, disagree and commit”.

“Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.”

This principle acknowledges that conflict or disagreement is healthy in a trusting environment. It also recognizes that once the discussion is over, all leaders must commit to the agreed course of action and be accountable for it.

In summary:

Here are three frames about speaking up for you to take away from this blog:

  1. Speaking up is not costly; it is a cost-saving.
  2. Conflict is not bad; it is good when different perspectives can be heard.
  3. Communication is not what we say, it is what others hear; frame your communication for understanding.

How will you implement them? 

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