furthering the skills and commitment
to speak up on behalf of respect

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The Slippery Slope of Silence

Do you ever choose to remain silent when you feel you really should speak up? Maybe you had a difference of opinion with a boss, co-worker, friend or family member but said nothing in order to preserve the relationship. What’s the harm, after all, in a little silence? You’d be surprised.

Dr. Leslie Perlow, Harvard Business School professor, conducts research on the high cost of silence in organizations. She calls it the “Silent Spiral.” It can destroy the very relationships you seek to preserve and undermine teamwork, creativity and productivity.

Dr. Perlow describes it like this: “When we silence, we are keeping part of ourselves out of the relationship and holding our thoughts and feelings inside: this withholding can be frustrating and anxiety producing. We can manage our appearance to make it seem as if we agree. But while we act like the difference doesn’t exist, it will not disappear. The experience of difference and the act of silencing causes discomfort.1

“There are lots of clever ways we can convince ourselves that the negative emotion resulting from unresolved difference is not a problem – denial, blame – but as long as the difference remains unresolved, there will be an underlying sense that things are not okay. We may experience anxiety, tension, or a vague sense of discomfort; however it is experienced it results in a greater sense of distance or disconnection in the relationship. And it causes us to become more self-protective.”

Once we feel the need to protect ourselves, we take fewer risks in the relationship and are less and less inclined to speak up about our differences. By now we are fully caught up in the “Silent Spiral.” For many, negative feelings fester and we ultimately find being around this person intolerable. We want out of the very relationship we had originally hoped to preserve. If we can’t leave, we may withdraw. “We no longer care to preserve the relationship but choose not to exit, at least not yet… At this point, we resign ourselves to working alongside one another, no longer trying to work together.”

Dr. Perlow focuses mostly on silencing differences of opinion, perspective or experience about tasks and its effects on work relationships and ultimately teamwork, creativity and productivity. Her book, When You Say Yes But Mean No: How Silencing Conflict Wrecks Relationships and Companies… and What You Can Do About It, resonates with my own experience. People tell me they don’t speak up when their ideas are different from the norm AND they don’t speak up when they witness stereotyping or other demeaning treatment. Why? Often for the exact same reason – because they fear losing or damaging relationships. So, they deliberately silence themselves, and as a result, the relationship IS weakened and the “Silent Spiral” continues.

If we want to create a workplace where everyone is treated with dignity, where solid relationships support teamwork and productivity, and where diversity of thought sparks creative solutions, we’ll have to stop the spiral. So, go ahead, use your voice. Break the silence.

To learn more about the damaging effects of silence and how to speak up in the face of stereotypes or other biased comments, see Ouch! That Stereotype Hurts and Ouch! Your Silence Hurts.

1 Perlow, Leslie A., When You Say Yes But Mean No: How Silencing Conflict Wrecks Relationships and Companies… and What You Can Do About It. Crowne Business, New York, NY, 2003. (Excerpts from pages 35 – 43.)


“Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.”

- Susan Sontag, American Writer and Human Rights Activist, 1933 - 2004


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FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE © 2011 Lynn Johnston Productions. Dist. By Universal Uclick. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Leslie’s thoughts: Great example of speaking up on behalf of respect. This is the “Interrupt and Redirect” technique, which gives “Doc” the chance to think about what he is saying, and possibly change directions. It’s even more powerful here because Doc's dental assistant uses herself as an example.