We live in a culture—especially at work—that prefers harmony over discord, agreement over dissent, speed over deliberation. We often smile and nod to each other even though deep down we could not disagree more. Whether with colleagues, friends, or family members, the tendency to paper over differences rather than confront them is extremely common. We believe that the best thing to do to preserve our relationships and to ensure that our work gets done as expeditiously as possible is to silence conflict.
Let’s face it, most bosses don’t encourage us to share our differences. Indeed, many people are taught that loyal employees accept corporate values, policies, and decisions—never challenging or questioning them. If we want to hold on to our jobs and move up in our organizations, stifling conflict is the safest way to do it—or so we believe.
And it is not just with our bosses that we fear raising a dissenting opinion. We worry about what our peers and even our subordinates may think of us. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves or create a bad impression. We don’t want to lose others’ respect or risk rejection.
We often associate conflict with its negative form—petty bickering, heated arguing, a bloody fight. But conflict can also be a source of creative energy; when handled constructively by both parties, differences can lead to a healthy and fruitful collaboration, creation, or construction of new knowledge or solutions. When we silence conflict, we avoid the possibility of negative conflict, but we also miss the potential for constructive conflict.
Worse yet, as Leslie Perlow documents, the act of silencing conflict may create the consequences we most dread. Tasks frequently take longer or never get done successfully, and silencing conflict over important issues with people for whom we care deeply can result in disrespect for, and devaluing of, those same people. Each time we silence conflict, we create an environment in which we’re all the more likely to be silent next time. We get caught in a vicious “silent spiral,” making the relationship progressively less safe, less satisfying, and less productive. Differences get glossed over, patched over, and suppressed . . . until disaster happens.
“Saying yes when you really mean no” is a problem that haunts organizations from start-ups to multi- nationals. It exists across industries, levels, and functions. And it’s exacerbated by a down economy, when the fear of losing one’s job is on everybody’s mind and the idea of allowing conflict to surface or disagreeing with others seems particularly risky. All too often, the conversation at work bespeaks harmony and togetherness, even though passionate disagreements exist beneath the surface.
Leslie A. Perlow is a corporate ethnographer, an anthropologist of corporate culture. Anthropologists like Margaret Mead spend years in the field studying exotic cultures. Perlow does the same, although the field for her is the office and the exotic people are us—those who work in the world of organizations. But the end result is no less surprising or rich in insight. Whether it’s a Fortune 500 firm, small business, or government bureaucracy, Perlow provides a keen understanding of the hidden issues behind what people say (and don’t say). And more important, she shows how to create relationships where individuals feel empowered to express their genuine thoughts and feelings and to harness the power of positive conflict.
From the Hardcover edition.
About Leslie Perlow
LESLIE A. PERLOW is an associate professor at Harvard Business School. She received her Ph.D. from MIT and is the author of Finding Time, published by Cornell University Press.
Ebook | $12.99
Published by Crown Business May 20, 2003| 256 Pages| ISBN 9781400049844
“Silencing conflict is a universal problem in companies of all shapes and sizes. Yet people fail to recognize when they are caught in this dangerous syndrome until it wreaks havoc on their relationships. Leslie Perlow’s excellent book teaches you how to detect early symptoms and avoid detrimental situations. For your own career success and for the success of your company you should start putting her lucid and practical ideas to work today.”—Adrian J. Slywotzky, coauthor of The Profit Zone
“When You Say Yes But Mean No is an invaluable resource for anyone working in an organization. People have a tremendous amount of knowledge and insight about what it takes to be successful. The challenge, though, is creating the kind of environment in which they feel comfortable speaking up and dealing directly and genuinely with peers, subordinates, and superiors. Leslie Perlow’s book contains critical insights and practical suggestions about how to create more open and honest relationships. If you put her ideas to work, the net result is sure to be a healthier and more productive organization.”—Raymond Gilmartin, chief executive officer, Merck & Co., Inc.
“This is a remarkable book that, once started, I had to read from cover to cover. The ‘don’t rock the boat’ syndrome is one of the silent killers of the modern corporation. It is a real breakthrough to learn how conflict brought out into the open can be a creative and sustainable force for the benefit of any company and its decision makers. Everyone knows how unspoken dissent is lurking below the surface, but few business leaders have the con?dence to deal with it. Leslie Perlow shows how it can be done in a well-researched and readable style.”—Alan Parker, president, Whitbread Hotel Company