Most people think they will speak up when something negative happens at work, but few actually do. Take these examples from a recent survey we did with managers and employees:

“We had an assistant who created a very adversarial atmosphere. We walked on eggshells around her. People would rather do her work themselves than engage with her. Her boss wouldn’t even cross her. This went on for years until she retired.”

“Instead of confronting a problem in a project plan, it was whispered about. Several months of work were put into implementing the plan even though all those involved knew it contained fatal flaws. The organization fell behind on its output goals and didn’t have the data it needed to forecast projected outcomes.”

“When our president and CEO suddenly passed away, the top-level execs (including myself) dealt with a gaping sense of loss and grief. Although we felt lost without our CEO, we knew what we had to do in order to navigate through the situation. However, we never addressed the company other than to say: ‘It’s business as usual.’ Because we didn’t reach out to ease employees’ worries and fears we created an atmosphere of anxiety (i.e., ‘Will the company survive?’ ‘Is my job secure?’, ‘What’s going on?’ etc.) which ultimately led to nearly 25% of our staff leaving within six months of the CEO’s passing.”

These aren’t trivial examples. In each case, they had real consequences and costs for the organizations.

At VitalSmarts, we’ve researched the propensity for people to stay silent before. In a previous study, we asked people what they would do if someone cut in front of them in line. Most people said they’d promptly and skillfully tell the person to head to the back of the line. But when we put their predictions to the test, we found something else. We went into a busy mall with confederates and a hidden camera to see what people really do when faced with a line-cutter. Here’s what we found: The line-cutting victims stand around looking frustrated yet never say a word. A few make dirty faces behind our confederates’ backs or complain to their neighbor. In our study, only one in 25 spoke up.

Speaking up about line cutting may seem frivolous — but in many other cases, giving voice to concerns saves lives. Consider our study in healthcare where we found that 90% of nurses don’t speak up to a physician even when they know a patient’s safety is at risk. We’ve also studied workplace safety. We found that 93% of people say their organization is at risk of an accident waiting to happen because people are either unwilling or unable to speak up.

What are the costs and consequences of this kind of silence? We surveyed 1,025 managers and employees and asked them about a time when they had a concern at work, but failed to voice it. We then asked them to tell us the story of what happened and to detail the impact on the organization. Of the hundreds of stories we gathered, five categories of conversations emerged as the most common and costly topics that people remain silent around. They include:

  • Prickly peers. Failure to confront rude, abrasive, defensive, and disrespectful colleagues. Examples included failing to confront harsh language, backbiting, bullying, harassment, withholding information, and resistance to feedback and input.
  • Strategic missteps. Failure to speak up when proposals and procedures are riddled with inaccuracies or faulty thinking. The problem is exacerbated when leadership makes decisions without first consulting experts or is unresponsive to employee concerns.
  • Lazy and incompetent colleagues. Failure to talk to peers and direct reports about poor work habits, incompetence and lack of engagement.
  • Abusive bosses. Failure to openly discuss damage done when people in power resort to control and reliance on position to push their agenda.
  • Management chaos. Failure to get clarification when people feel uncertain around roles, responsibilities, specs, and timelines. A perceived lack of safety to share concerns without retribution makes asking for clarification feel risky.

Continue reading via Harvard Business Review