Speaking your mind when the stakes are high is difficult for many people, especially when your opinion isn’t shared by others. However, the consequences of decisions can be deadly, as NASA discovered in 1986, when they launched the Challenger shuttle in spite of concerns about the booster rockets.

Even when the situation isn’t life or death, it’s important to speak your mind. VitalSmarts’ postion paper, “Eliminating cultures of silence,” offers five scenarios where silence can be dangerous:

1. Fact-free planning. A project is set up to fail with deadlines or resource limits that are set with no consideration for reality, a flaw almost no one discusses effectively.

2. Absent Without Leave (AWOL) sponsors. The sponsor doesn’t provide leadership, political clout, time or energy to see a project through to completion, and those depending on him or her don’t effectively address the sponsor’s failures.

3. Skirting. People work around the priority-setting process and are not held accountable for doing so.

4. Project chicken. Team leaders and members don’t admit when there are problems with a project but wait for someone else to speak up first.

5. Team failures. Team members perpetuate dysfunction when they are unwilling or unable to support the project, and team leaders are reluctant to discuss their failures with them candidly.

It takes courage and skill to say things that may be hard for others to hear. The organization’s culture plays an important role as well. How do you create a culture where people are more likely to speak up when it’s needed?

Train the top first.  If top leadership doesn’t know when and how to speak their truth to each other, they can’t expect the rest of the organization to do the same. (And you can bet no one will share sensitive truths up the chain of command.)

Encourage outlying perspectives on small and big issues. If the norm in the organization is that people don’t speak up, even with the stakes are low, they won’t have the required experience and skills to sound the alarm when the situation is more critical.

Reward honest, open communication. It’s one thing to say that you value dissenting opinions. It’s another to actively praise and reward people who speak up, even when they’re wrong.

Tell people it’s expected, show them how to do it and model speaking up yourself. Most important may be how you deal with the situation when a direct report raises an issue you don’t want to hear.


Think your people are biting their tongues? We can help you learn what they really think.

Photo from Dollar Photo Club.