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A Professor Takes Aim At Corrosive Silence (Abstract)

A Professor Takes Aim at Corrosive Silence. Leslie A. Perlow, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, has made a career analyzing how people behave at work. By Claudia H. Deutsch. [New York Times: Business]

I recently saw Bartleby by Outrider Pictures on the Sundance Channel and was amazed. It is a recreations of Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, set in our modern times, filmed 2001. The original book is about a law clerk who gradually "prefers not to" work, it's wrought with both social and business relationship context.

(Columbia University published a great interactive guide on the original book, which includes commentary and available at the University of Texas)

Often expectations in business relationships bound with social context that causes conflicts between employees. These conflict aren't always addressed directly. In this thought provoke movie, Bartleby does an excellent job at filing and is a diligent productive worker, but refuses to do any other work requested of his supervisor.

While the storyline is complex, lets focus on the silences:

As the movie progresses the entire office adjusts it's own performance (or lack thereof) around Bartleby's preference not to perform certain tasks. This is counter to assigning more of what Bartleby desires, or even referring him to a counselor (there are other social concerns hinted in the characters behavior.) By remaining silent about these issues the office loses its contracts and ends up worse than it began.

Without going into our responsibility as executives for the welfare of our employees while they work with our organization-- it is important to understand we can only control our own actions, the actions of others are ultimately at their own discretion.

Leslie A Perlow, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, has made some startling discoveries about the harm of what goes unsaid in todays business relationships.

An excerpt of a New York Times interview with Perlow is provided here with comments provides you things you should understand about the harm of silence:

  1. Internal stress grows when you say nothing. If the performance of another employee bothers you, it is better to have a short-term conflict than a long-term irritation. Realize that if you say nothing, there will be no change.
  2. Silence contributes to unnecessary efforts. Often both sides of an arrangement know an idea is no good, and don't acknowledge their concerns. Be the one who takes initiative and seek feedback from others.
  3. Most often people say nothing in fear of offending others. It is better to upset someone for a day than harm your own performance as a result of their actions for a month-- still be tactful and polite, but be firm.
  4. Block out daily quiet time to focus efforts. These times are interruption free and focus you on accomplishing those things at hand. Choose a time that works best for your team.
  5. Face dysfunctional behavior directly when possible. Let people know when their interruptions are not appropriate, and when it would be a better time to discuss their issue.
  6. Interruptions make day work difficult. Perlow found that 9 to 5 isn't always the best time to get things done and deadlines weren't being met because people were being interrupted by others.
  7. Seek all sides of a decision before committing. Get everyone's feedback and avoid simple consensus when making business decisions. Try to openly weigh the pros and cons of each decision before acting.
  8. Acknowledge your fears and concerns openly. Use role playing to help individual articulate their concerns about project decisions, don't single anyone out for their opinion. (Primarily used in decision making.)
  9. Progress toward objectives over seeking consensus. The actions you take are just as important as the decisions you make, focus on moving forward in everything you do-- even if that means saying something people don't want to hear.
  10. Know where everyone is coming from, but agree to disagree. Hearing everyone's input on an effort may lead to differences of opinions, learn to accept people won't agree, but have to progress while listening to others.

When good employees say nothing, it is often the company that suffers. I offer some warning though, often human relationships are not as mature as one might expect. Use tact when working with others or suffer the backlash of petty politics. Often ineffective people take offense to being asked to take their their work time more seriously.

/ employee-relations | magic-one /

By Justin Hitt at August 3, 2003 4:13 AM  Subscribe in a reader


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