In hesitating and then choosing not to speak up, Christina was making a quick, not entirely conscious, risk calculation – the kind of micro-assessment most of us make numerous times a day. Most likely she was not even aware that she had weighed the risk of being belittled or berated against the risk that the babies might in fact need the medication to thrive. She told herself the doctor knew better than she did, and she was not confident he would welcome her input. Inadvertently, she had done something psychologists call discounting the future – underweighting the more important issue of the patients' health, which would take some time to play out, and overweighting the importance of the doctor's possible response, which would happen immediately. Our spontaneous tendency to discount the future explains the prevalence of many unhelpful or unhealthy behaviors – whether eating that extra piece of chocolate cake or procrastinating on a challenging assignment – and the failure to speak up at work is an important and often overlooked example of this problematic tendency.
Like most people, Christina was spontaneously managing her image at work. As noted sociologist Erving Goffman argued in his seminal 1957 book, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life
, as humans, we are constantly attempting to influence others' perceptions of us by regulating and controlling information in social interactions.2
We do this both consciously and subconsciously.
Put another way, no one wakes up in the morning excited to go to work and look ignorant, incompetent, or disruptive. These are called interpersonal risks, and they are what nearly everyone seeks to avoid, not always consciously.3
In fact, most of us want to look smart, capable, or helpful in the eyes of others. No matter what our line of work, status, or gender, all of us learn how to manage interpersonal risk relatively early in life. At some point during elementary school, children start to recognize that what others think of them matters, and they learn how to lower the risk of rejection or scorn. By the time we're adults, we're usually really good at it! So good, we do it without conscious thought. Don't want to look ignorant? Don't ask questions. Don't want to look incompetent? Don't admit to mistakes or weaknesses. Don't want to be called disruptive? Don't make suggestions. While it might be acceptable at a social event to privilege looking good over making a difference, at work this tendency can lead to significant
problems – ranging from thwarted innovation to poor service to, at the extreme, loss of human life. Yet avoiding behaviors that might lead others to think less of us is pretty much second nature in most workplaces.
As influential management thinker Nilofer Merchant said about her early days as an administrator at Apple, “I used to go to meetings and see the problem so clearly, when others could not.” But worrying about being “wrong,” she “kept quiet and learned to sit on my hands lest they rise up and betray me. I would rather keep my job by staying within the lines than say something and risk looking stupid.”4
In one study investigating employee experiences with speaking up, 85% of respondents reported at least one occasion when they felt unable to raise a concern with their bosses, even though they believed the issue was important.5
If you think this behavior is limited to those lower in the organization, consider the chief financial officer recruited to join the senior team of a large electronics company. Despite grave reservations about a planned acquisition of another company, the new executive said nothing. His colleagues seemed uniformly enthusiastic, and he went along with the decision. Later, when the takeover had clearly failed, the executives gathered with a consultant for a post-mortem. Each was asked to reflect on what he or she might have done to contribute to or avert the failure. The CFO, now less of an outsider, shared his earlier concerns, acknowledging that he had let the team down by not speaking up. Openly apologetic and emotional, he lamented that the others' enthusiasm had left him afraid to be “the skunk at the picnic.”
The problem with sitting on our hands and staying within the lines rather than speaking up is that although these behaviors keep us personally safe, they can make us underperform and become dissatisfied. They can also put the organization at risk. In the case of Christina and the newborns, fortunately, no immediate damage was done, but as we will see in later chapters, the fear of speaking up can lead to accidents that were in fact avoidable. Remaining silent due to fear of interpersonal risk can make the difference between life and death. Airplanes have crashed, financial institutions have fallen, and hospital patients have died unnecessarily because individuals were, for reasons having to do with the climate in which they worked, afraid to speak up. Fortunately, it doesn't have to happen.
Envisioning the Psychologically Safe Workplace
Had Christina worked in a hospital unit where she felt psychologically safe, she would not have hesitated to ask the neonatologist whether or not he thought treating the newborns with prophylactic lung medicine was warranted. Here too, she might not even be aware of making a conscious decision to speak up; it would simply seem natural to check. She would take for granted that her voice was appreciated, even if what she said didn't lead to a change in the patient's care. In a climate characterized by psychological safety – which blends trust and respect – the neonatologist might quickly agree with Christina and call the pharmacy to put in a request, or he might have explained why he thought it wasn't warranted in this case. Either way, the unit would be better off as a result. The patients would have received life-saving medication, or the team would have learned more about the subtleties of neonatal medicine. Before leaving the room, the doctor might thank Christina for her intervention. He'd be glad he could rely on her to speak up in case he slipped up, missed a detail, or was simply distracted.
Finally, as she gave the medicine to the babies, Christina might come up with the idea that the NICU could institute a protocol to make sure that that all babies who need a surfactant would get it. She might seek out her manager to make this suggestion during a break in the action. And because psychological safety exists in work groups, rather than between specific individuals (such as Christina and Dr. Drake), it's likely he...