October 22, 2018,   11:01 AM

Nothing Changes Without A Conversation, So What’s Stopping Us From Speaking Up?

Forbes Middle East


If you’re like most people then you shy away from difficult conversations. Especially when you have to talk about sensitive things like money, personal hygiene or “bad” behaviour. I have been paid eight times to tell people they smell bad – that's right, eight different organisations have brought me in because they were unsure how to approach the conversation.

But with over 90% of people we surveyed experiencing behaviour at work they thought wasn’t right or appropriate, it seems counterproductive to business in this region for us to avoid these tough talks. Given the multicultural workforces driving the majority of the GCC’s economies, it’s little wonder that such nuanced or challenging conversations become even more difficult.

Telling somebody they are underperforming, asking for a raise, or sharing a difference in opinion with a co-worker may be necessary but it’s rarely fun. And because it’s not fun and it makes us feel emotions we’d prefer to avoid, we avoid the conversation. Cultural differences are a huge factor at play in our diverse workforces, too, making it even more complex to have these conversations.

I recently worked with management at a GCC-based company made up of male expats, managing a team of local women. They knew they needed to give critical feedback, but were afraid of being perceived as disrespectful. The women didn’t get the feedback they wanted – and had asked for – and as a result they were annoyed and felt they were being held back.

The problem is that having difficult conversations only feels good in the medium to long term because that’s when we see results – but we like to live in the short term. We’d rather avoid feeling embarrassed, silly or uncomfortable or run the risk of offending someone when really, we need to bite the bullet and have the conversation. We know nothing will change without it. But in the moment, we’d rather not go through the negative emotions. Our ‘doom-monger’ mentality points out all the possible negative repercussions to speaking up, but with only 5% of us actually having the confidence to do something about it, isn’t there a chance that things could actually get better if we just had the courage to speak up?

Doom-mongering has costs. We know whining to our co-workers or looking for a miracle is unlikely to work but somehow, over time, we get used to this new normal and things get inexorably worse.

Ironically, by avoiding the short-term pain, we fall victim to long-term pain instead. A prime example of this was a new leader brought in to head up a financial services company. He was appointed because the organisation needed change, and the senior leadership team all seemingly agreed with his new approach. Yet when it came to implementation, they didn’t cooperate and essentially scuppered the new leader. He was cautious – he felt unable to directly raise this with them as he didn’t have support. As a result, he wasn’t able to build further support or buy-in. He managed to avoid feeling uncomfortable or taking a risk in the short-term, but eventually lost his job.

Another danger in falling victim to long-term pain is the chronic business consequences – the ones that hurt, but we learn to live with. In organisations this creates a culture of mediocrity at best, and fear at worst.

Mediocrity sets in because the best talent won’t stay in organisations where they can’t make a difference. The best talent will go where they can grow and contribute to growth – not only to the growth of the organisation, but to the growth of the people within it.

Often, it’s fear that stops us from speaking up. But what do we fear? Looking stupid? Feeling bad? Even making the other person feel bad? But if we don’t speak up then we’ll never be able to make any changes.

Diversity is good for business – it’s proven. But sometimes living or working in a diverse environment makes us more fearful. Where there are differences, we naturally feel more cautious and don’t want to slip up. So we don’t say anything.

It might be difficult, but without these conversations we will not get results.

Dawn Metcalfe is Managing Director of PDSi and author of The HardTalk Handbook and Managing the Matrix. 

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