Don’t Be Nice
Research shows that 70% of people don’t speak up at work, often to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. Overcoming our desire to ‘not rock the boat’ would actually prevent potentially serious issues that affect productivity and performance.
In all organizations, the truth is hard to say and hear. We tend to
avoid what is difficult and choose the path of least resistance. This
means that in both public and private lives, many people are dishonest
with each other, regardless of the consequences.
They don’t do this for ill-intentioned reasons. In fact, when we ask
people why they don’t speak up they tend to say things like “it’s not my
place” or “I don’t want to hurt their feelings.”
When you probe a little further, both of these statements really
mean, “I don’t want to run the risk of this person thinking poorly of
me.” This aversion to short-term pain doesn’t help anyone.
There are consequences to remaining quiet and they can be
devastating. I recently asked a senior leader to tell me the greatest
professional regret he had and he told me that it was not giving a sales
guy on his first team immediate and useful feedback about how he came
across to the high net worth individuals they were targeting.
“Honestly, I really liked the guy and didn’t want to be the one to
tell him that I couldn’t see him ever being successful at this,” he told
me. As a result, his sales employee missed out on valuable feedback and
potentially wasted years doing something he was never going to be great
In fact our research shows that when we see things we don’t like at
work – from cheating to underperformance – 70 percent of people don’t
This means good ideas go unheard, opportunities for innovation are
missed. Decisions are made that shouldn’t happen. Employee morale
suffers if opinion and feedback of employees is not taken into account,
which reflects on productivity and long-term success at the company. Who
wants to go to work somewhere where nobody is held accountable and
messy politics are the name of the game?
Thomas Sowell, currently senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University has a more constructive approach.
“When you want to help people, you tell them the truth,” he says.
“When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.”
In 2012 Google began a study called Project Aristotle that looked at
what it takes to be a high-performing team. What they found is that it
wasn’t the number of people or how clever they were or how diverse the
team was – it was how well the team members did at both speaking up and
listening so that every team member spoke about the same amount.
What they found out is the importance, first and foremost, of
psychological safety. This means that you should be able to speak up –
to ask questions and to say things that might upset others – and to be
confident that everyone around you will listen and consider your
It doesn’t mean you get to be rude – that has an impact on
performance too as we’ve seen in the operating room with highly
qualified, professional and experienced medical teams underperforming by
about 50 percent when confronted with a rude “expert” giving
The value of speaking up does not mean everyone should feel free to
blurt out whatever they feel like at any time. It’s much more about how
hard you have to work to get others to speak up. Because that’s where
your results will come from: how well you understand the other person.
It doesn’t mean you’ll always win. Not everyone will always be
convinced; some people are poor performers or ill-suited for the job;
some people will never perform at the level you need. But if you can
build an environment where everyone is heard you are likely to have
better relationships, deal more effectively with underperformance, make
better decisions in a more motivated, healthy work environment.
To achieve this, you need to make sure everyone in the organization
has the skills to speak up and believes it’s worthwhile doing so. That
second element involves doing an audit of your organization and working
with the senior team as well as others to identify barriers. These might
be structural, cultural or personality-driven or have a hundred other
But if you want to avoid your team seeing projects, deadlines,
revenue streams, lives at risk or opportunities missed without saying
anything because they don’t know how or don’t feel empowered — then we
don’t really have a choice.