When Should You Speak Up -- Or Shut Up?

Last Updated Jul 27, 2009 4:01 PM EDT

One of your employees has just done something that drives you up the wall. Maybe it's a sloppy error on a report. Maybe it's showing up just "a few" minutes late -- for the sixth day in a row. Or maybe it's the umpteenth repetition of that annoying, braying laugh before you've had your morning coffee.

Whatever it is, it's annoying. But is it worth a confrontation?

The question was prompted by my reading of a short post from Arif & Ali's Blog that suggested there are times you should remain silent.

Referring back to the book Crucial Confrontations, the duo suggest you hold your tongue if:

  • the problem is small, won't happen again, and you know the other person already feels bad
  • the problem doesn't have a significant impact
Well, that makes sense. But in my many years of struggling to learn tact and to mitigate my tendency to blurt out everything that bugs me, I've learned a few other guidelines about shutting up. For instance:
  • If a confrontation is unlikely to result in a change, skip it. This includes trying to discuss the aforementioned braying laugh or attempting to modify personality traits. No matter how much you might want to, you can't force someone to be less bubbly or more talkative or give up their penchant for '80s slang.
  • Don't confront just because you need to be proven right about something. That's just a grown-up version of the "I told you so" game and it doesn't result in anything but resentment. If there's no other point to the discussion other than you flaunting your superiority, just skip it.
  • Don't confront until you gather all the information. I've found myself with egg on my face more than once because I called someone to task for something that turned out not be their fault or their doing.
  • Don't confront someone if there's a chance of physical danger. This makes my list because of an unfortunate altercation I once had with a disgruntled athlete when I was a sports reporter. I learned that it's not a good idea to take issue with someone calling you a "nosy b!&@%" if that someone is a 300-pound lineman who just lost a crucial game. No injuries to report, other than my wounded pride as I literally had to run away to avoid his flailing fists.
There are a lot of fine lines here, of course. Do you confront one of your team members because you don't like his aftershave? Probably not. But if said aftershave is making the rest of your team ill, it's time to speak up. Same thing with chronic minor lateness. Maybe the person is getting her work done just the same, or staying a little bit late to make up for it, so you haven't said anything. But if it's causing resentment in the ranks, it might merit a talk.

Tomorrow, I'm planning to write a bit about how to confront constructively. In the meantime, share your thoughts, experiences, and confrontation horror stories with me in the comments section.

(image by *clairity* via Flickr, CC 2.0)

  • CC Holland

    CC Holland is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a number of national magazines. Online, she was a columnist for AnchorDesk.com and writes regularly for Law.com and BNET. On the other side of the journalism desk, she's been a managing editor for ZDNet, CNet, and KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, where she earned an APTRA Best News Web Site award.