Shut Up or Speak Up?

Shut Up or Speak Up?

wisdom to shut up or speak

Every honest business person would admit to a regret here or there. Sure, some take a “no regrets” philosophy but that’s a rationalization for your conscience and dwelling on regrets is certainly worse. Learning from actions you come to regret is how you grow and gain wisdom. That may be linked to something you’ve done, or not done, more common it is something you said, or maybe didn’t say. Was it an emotional reaction or an intimidation? Ever try to wish words back in your mouth or regret there wasn’t an “un-send” button on the keyboard. A common dilemma can be choosing to speak up or shut up. Knowing when and why to choose can lead to great personal triumph…or, you know, a big old regret.

I recall a day when I was working at Sports Illustrated in the late ‘90s and we were all gathered by the Publisher to introduce a new President at a time when there was a lot of tumult on our floor. After some brief comments skirting all the issues and giving the expected vague and innocuous promises the Publisher went to conclude the President’s remarks with a, “Are there any questions.”  The tension was high so no one wanted to make a public challenge in the intimidating setting. The Publisher remarked, “Good. It’s better to be smart than brave.” With that he dismissed the meeting.

The lesson stuck with me, but not without occasional neglect of the axiom. On a couple of occasions, feeling strongly that I was doing the right thing I might have let go a memo or comment along the way that I came to regret. It turns out that doing what’s right is a highly subjective thing and not the same thing as being effective. While I felt highly justified in my speaking out at the time, how one speaks out says as much about a person’s judgment as what is being said. In fact, the wrong approach may end up having the message diminished. If not immediately there may be a lasting impression of being a complainer, overstepping your bounds or lacking in judgment as to how to get an issue addressed or resolved without drama.

Today, with #metoo we see a new boldness and acceptance for speaking up about harassment and abuses of power. This area is fraught with a history of repercussion for those who spoke up. The same can be true regarding “whistle blowers” who often sacrifice personally in order to follow actions of conscience. There are some black and white situations where speaking up is imperative. Shutting up can also be a wise choice if the actions and consequences are more subjective or inconclusive. Whether morally imperative or annoyingly frustrating, choosing to speak or shut up is only the first step. Both options come with a scale of effectiveness and consequence and usually an escalation path or a habit you develop.

Some cases that demand speaking up suggest putting it in writing. That could include when laws are being intentionally broken, when people are being put in physical or emotional danger or when ethical standards are being ignored with arrogance or intention. Creating a written record initiates a liability of action but you don’t always need to voice your concerns to the world to get the best outcome. Keeping the audience to whom needs or should know first allows you time for actions and reactions, and evidence of inaction suggests many options.

For smaller or questionable concerns making a phone call or asking the authority figure first leaves you the license to document and may de-emphasize the messenger should the issue be known and perhaps in the process of resolution. Caution at that point may be advisable. Document it to yourself, note the details of the conversation and if appropriate change is not forthcoming you have a stronger reference point to the problem and the time past.

There are ways of noting problems that may have less negative reflection on the one raising the issue. One technique is the use of a good question. Popping into someone a couple of steps up the ladder and saying, “I hate to bother you but I need your advice, If I knew of XYZ situation going on what would you suggest I do.”  How that is answered will likely give you an indication of what’s to come and clues for you to continue navigating the issue.

When to shut up may not be such an issue for the shrinking violets. For those who believe they inhabit a moral, intellectual or professional high ground or ambition, and have been rewarded in the past for their willingness to be bold or aggressive, it can be a challenge to their nature. Leaders are often identified or rewarded for their immediate grasp of a situation or willingness to speak up or suggest the Emperor has no clothes in the parade. There’s a common adage that if you are mad go ahead and write your memo but wait a day to hit send. Having followed that advice and read a commentary the next day when the emotion has settled you may look at your choice of words very differently. Don’t rule out the fact that sometimes the only one who needs to see that memo is you. By releasing emotion you may take a new tack.

Conveying emotion, usually anger, outrage or frustration your hope is your narration will inspire empathy and action in kind. Having likely not experienced the incident or actions directly those who are told may first question your reaction. When “putting it in writing,” ask yourself if this could be resolved more simply? Is it possible the other party does not realize or recognize your point of view or other’s perception.  It is important for you to consider how it might go opposite of how you imagine. We’ve all seen enough “blame the victim” reactions to be wary. Take the simplest path first and keep your ego or ambition in equity.

A snap response can be the most professionally dangerous. Whether it is a distasteful or inappropriate comment that you imagine will get a laugh or an ardent public objection going against the grain considering your words and keeping your brain filter on before your mouth jumps into action is key—and hard for some.  The instant apology might be necessary as you recognize malapropos and wish you could un-say something. Condemning yourself for the comment, being self-deprecating and directly apologetic might lessen the impact and get you a second chance (but those chances are not unlimited).

Maybe the simplest handbook guidelines to whether to speak up is:

  • When the law or personal safety is at stake.
  • When a person is being dealt with inappropriately by action or language.
  • When you have a strong feeling something, a policy, a process, a strategy is incorrect and have a factual argument in opposition.
  • As witness to intimidation hiding or defend inappropriate actions.

In all these cases you need to choose how and to whom to address, or perhaps consider who is in attendance when you speak up.

  • Don’t write it down if you can resolve it verbally.
  • Hold your emotion until you get clarity by asking questions, even if you know the answer.
  • Document any concern and action to bolster your escalation and protect yourself if necessary.

When to shut up…

  • If the boss is presenting in public (question in private).
  • Make your point with a question rather than a “high ground” stance.
  • Commenting on other’s appearance (unless it is simple courtesy and applied to all).
  • Denigrating a political or religious belief (though suggesting it’s not an appropriate business topic may be a “speak up”).
  • When you think your comment is funny but at someone else’s expense.
  • When you have gotten a clear refute (then you have a decision to deal with it, get away from it or escalate it outside the normal chain).

We can’t be our best selves if we are riddled with fear of consequence for being ourselves or stifled by suppression. If you are human there’s a good chance somewhere at some time you’ll do or say something that you later regret but apologies and learning are part of the path. Most importantly, in all commentary, whether off the cuff or thoughtfully documented take full consideration of the actions. It is okay to consider the consequences to yourself, that doesn’t mean compromising your values, beliefs or the law but it does suggest you should take a beat and look before you leap. Sometimes not saying what you are thinking is a really, really good strategy. Hope you find the wisdom to recognize the difference.


© 2018 MyEureka Solutions LLC.  Follow Tom on Twitter @TomFoxTrainer or read more business bits at