Speak up

Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.—Hitchens

A woman checked into the hospital to have a tonsillectomy, and the surgical team erroneously removed a portion of her foot. How could this tragedy happen? In fact, why is it that ninety-eight thousand hospital deaths each year stem from human error? In part it’s because many healthcare professionals are afraid to speak their minds. In this case, no less than seven people wondered why the surgeon was working on the foot, but said nothing. Meaning didn’t flow because people were afraid to speak up [Patterson and Grenny, Crucial Conversations, pg. 22].

Two problems led to this debacle: an intimidating leader and intimidated followers. In a previous post I encouraged leaders to embrace robust dialogue among team members—that would eliminate the first problem. In this essay, let’s think about what we should do if robust dialogue is disallowed and something bad is about to happen if we don’t speak up.

It takes a lot of courage and emotional fortitude to confront that which is unfair, inaccurate, corrupt, foolish, wrong, ignorant, misdirected, inappropriate, and/or evil; but we have a moral imperative to do so.

Sometimes there is a price to pay. Once in my career, I spoke up about a dysfunctional area of the organization and I was summarily dismissed. Previously, a friend had advised me to always have six months of “go-to-hell money” in my savings account. “That way, if your job becomes unbearable,” he said, “you can tell your boss what you think and then walk away.” His advice came in handy that day.

Become skillful at truth-telling. Learn to speak the undiluted truth in a palatable way and at the right time. Don’t be unkind, mean, or crass (some people, armed with the truth, think they have a 007 license to kill) but do speak up.

I’ll end this post with another sad story that illustrates the dangers of intimidating leadership and silent, repressed followers.

Alexander the Great was once drinking with his chief officers at a party, when, in a drunken stupor, he began arguing with his best friend and faithful soldier, Clitus. Alexander impetuously threw a spear at his friend, hit him square in the chest, and killed him. It stunned the entire group. Alexander couldn’t believe what he had just done and immediately went to his private chamber.

Soon, Alexander’s officers approached him one at a time to try to console him. Aristander told him, “It’s just fate.” Callisthenes said, “We needed that.” Anaxarchus surmised, “Good will come from it.” No one had the emotional fortitude to tell Alexander the Great that what he had done was a terrible deed.

A contemporary historian noted, “In this way, they consoled his soul, but corrupted his character.”

[reminder]What are your thoughts about this essay?[/reminder]


What? – There are times when it is wrong to remain silent.
So what? – Develop the emotional fortitude to speak up when you should.
Now what? – Read Sam Harris’ book Lying. It presents a good case for always being honest. Then, begin to speak up when situations demand it.

Leaders – Do your team members have the freedom to speak up and express dissenting views? Do you seek honest feedback or squelch it?

12 Replies to “Speak up”

  1. Until I was in my 30s, I was easily intimidated by almost everyone – my husband, mother, sisters, mother-in-law, pastor and almost everyone taller than me. (I’m short.) In return, they all beat down on me emotionally. Then one day while spending time with the Lord, He very clearly said to me, “RaJean, let me tell you My definition of intimidation. It is looking at anyone or anything more than you’re looking at Me.” Ouch!!! Having truth condensed in so few words changed my life. I’ve learned that no one can intimidate me. That is my choice. They can take advantage of me if I’m feeling intimidated but it’s still my choice. Since then, I’ve been able to minister all over the U.S., in more than 20 countries and stand before kings and presidents without fear or feelings of unworthiness.

    1. Rajean,
      Thanks for your transparency, and for sharing how you conquered the issue of intimidation. I had a friend who, when meeting with an intimidating type man, would think “he puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like I do.” It was just enough to remind him that all humans are similar and not to be feared. Say hello to Gary for me.

  2. To what degree can a corrupted character possess a consoled soul? It would seem to me that not only was their encouragement misdirected but their efforts would seem frustrated and unattainable.

  3. Don, I have thoroughly enjoyed all of these essays. Although I am no longer in the work place, they are quite helpful in all areas of my life, including but not limited my close relationships. Thank you for this website, I have been sharing these as well. Practical and insightful.

  4. I can certainly relate to this article. Once while interviewing with a sales manager for a position with his company, he asked “where do you see yourself in this company in the next 5 years?” I answered, “that chair your sitting in looks mighty comfortable to me!” Needless to say I didn’t get the job.
    Sometimes youth and truth do not compliment each other!!

    1. Ed, great statement on your part. I would have hired you because of your optimism and aggressiveness. Thanks for reading my blog and for being my friend. Don

  5. Totally agree, have a position at a new prestigious five star hotel and I cannot believe all of the things wrong with the place. Yes, it’s new and I cannot imagine having to manage something so big, but I keep thinking instead of pushing to open before you are quite ready wouldn’t it be best to make sure you and your team know what you are doing and have all the kinks ironed out. My immediate supervisor is immature and treats others with great disrespect then turns around and acts like it is not ok to question her, she takes that as a challenge I think. Because she is a supervisor she gets off lightly it seems and I seem to be the only one who is saying this is not ok. Our staff is also treated as less important than the guests and that is also not ok. Bathrooms instead of a locker room to change in. Not enough seating in the break room so many have to eat standing over a counter and the food quality for the employees one meal is often tasteless. They want all of our time to work when ever they need us but to get any time off seems to be a big deal. Do not think it will get better like they tell us it will. Will speak with the General Manager if I need to to be heard.

    1. Julee, this situation sounds intolerable. Almost a toxic work environment. Do what you can to help but realize your hands may be tied. Don

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