Winston Churchill saved his nation because he spoke up. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake because she did. People at home or in organizations are applauded, punished or purged every day for what they say—and what they don’t say.
There is no doubt that organizations with a culture of openness, candor, and transparency have a competitive edge. They move quickly and effectively in an environment where hundreds of employees are not sitting on facts that they’re afraid someone else won’t like.
It’s a difficult question to answer ….
When do I speak up?
When do I shut up?
Speaking up . . . or . . . shutting up . . . are two of the most important things I do in any given day.
Don’t Say It – Bite Your Tongue
My West Texas relatives knew the power of words to build or destroy. When I was young, they used to tell me to “bite my tongue” before saying anything I might regret.
Yet I’d have to say that I’d have no tongue at all If I literally bit it every time I was on the verge of saying something that might get me in trouble.
There’s the whole spectrum of those whose inclination is not to say anything and others with a compulsion to speak out.
You Know Them – Those Who Never Speak Out
On the ”almost never speak out” side of the spectrum are those who will only tell you what they think—if it’s a dark night with no moon, no one else around, and you’re their closest friend. Listen closely, however, because they’re not going to say it twice.
The people on the “never speak out” side have a myriad of reasons to keep their thoughts to themselves. They often think that their perspective is so deep and complex that no one will understand. Their opinions are like gold, and not to be shared with just anyone.
A great many of those who never speak out have harmony as their highest value. They believe if there is no controversy, things are going well in the organization. People who never speak out often can also feel it’s not their duty or place to speak out, and if there is a situation to be resolved by what they might say, it’s not up them to speak out.
Then There Are Those Who Always Speak Out
Then there’s the “almost always speak out” side of the spectrum. These people weigh in on everything. They have an opinion about anything they ever thought about or felt. They believe that if you want the final word on anything—you should ask them. If you simply follow their lead, a moon shot will be possible in a matter of a few short weeks. They are compelled to speak out because they know opportunity will be missed and disaster will be unavoidable, if they don’t express their opinion.
Speaking Up or Shutting Up—Tips to Know When and When Not
If you are a leader, you know that what you say and when you say it are often the most important decisions you make. The point is often made that what you do is more important than what you say, but for the most part what I do is driven by what I say. Words literally call into existence what happens around us.
- Speaking Out Immediately—the Pros and the Cons. Some people believe that expressing their opinion as quickly as possible is like the Gunfight at the OK Corral. If you get your opinion out there as quickly as a gunfighter draws and fires their pistol, you’ll prevail in the discussion.
This verbal gunslinger approach has some merit because controlling the narrative early is often a great strategy to win the immediate argument. Some dominate organizational opinion by speaking out early and often. The result is often two-fold, however. You polarize opinion and an argument divides the group or you shut down group discussion and you don’t hear many valuable points of view. You don’t achieve buy-in from those who feel they got handed the decision without discussion.
- The Best Discussion Unfolds—Speaking Out Comes from the Best Thinking and Thinkers. A small organization can run effectively with one person who is the expert calling the shots. Once, however, an organization gets to the number of people where there are functions and people who don’t see what each other are doing every day, the only way an organization can work effectively is for people to discuss issues and allow the solutions to unfold based on a consensus.
Organizations that have systems where decisions are pushed down rather than emerge from the group are rarely successful. The old Soviet Union collapsed largely because of central planning—a single opinion that comes down from the top. Wise organizations build their strategy on the best thinking and thinkers in the organization.
So think it through….the best path for the organization may be for you to hold your tongue before you speak.
- Building Consensus Based on the Vision. Leaders are seen as people who speak out, and they pull together the best thinking of the organization and build it around the vision of the organization. They often express themselves in original ways, yet they express the direction and thinking of the organization based on its vision—how the organization sees where it’s going and how it will get there.
As a leader, consider this as a template for when to speak and when to wait: Will speaking your truth NOW best align the organization behind the vision, or will that alignment coalesce faster and better if you allow other voices to be heard first?
Speaking out at the right time is a critical type of acumen for a good leader. Sometimes speaking out is a dangerous thing to do and must be done. It’s a tough daily decision we often make several times a day. It’s difficult because in just an eye blink you have to decide whether to say what’s about to come out of your mouth—and you can never unsay what you just said. You can clarify it, re-spin it, retract it, or disavow it, but what came from your lips can never be reclaimed. In our mind and in our mouths, we hold the future of the people around us. So it is a valuable leadership skill to be intentional about when to speak out and when to keep quiet.