Sue Unerman's Blog

How to fix problems that are festering

Have you ever been in a meeting where you felt unable to say what you were really thinking because you knew that it would be unpopular?

You know the scenario. You’re sitting there with an opinion that differs from the consensus. Perhaps you have some inside knowledge of what’s really going on. Or a strong instinct that doing what the louder voices in the meeting believe is right would be… well, just wrong.

But you can be frightened to speak out – to say what you believe is the truth – because you think it will put you under pressure to conform, and perhaps end up with you being quashed.

Have you ever swallowed your words, only to then watch as the problem you kept quiet about just builds and builds?

The author Margaret Heffernan gave a talk on this subject on the radio about her experience running a major US company and being firmly told not to tell the truth by her advisors. She believes that the desire for senior executives to smooth over problems and not face up to the truth of bad situations is one of the key problems with business, and her speech praised the value of whistleblowers and dissenters.

She points out that, when you do speak up in the situations I have described, you are nearly always saying something that everyone is thinking anyway. Once the problem is out in the open, you can do something about it. The role of senior management is to create a situation of trust, where dissenters are heard and the option to zig when everyone else is zagging doesn’t carry the risk of ridicule or dismissal.

Without a culture in which people can take the risk of speaking up, you can’t fix anything.

Heffernan quotes research that says up to 85 per cent of business people fear that they can’t tell the truth, either through fear of retribution (predominant in the US) or because there isn’t any point (the UK reaction).

We need to celebrate our dissenters and cherish those who point out what is going unspoken. Without telling the truth, we end up with unbelievable spin and that’s as true in our day-to-day working lives as it is in our communications strategies for brands. For more on truth-telling for brands, my book’s still available on Amazon if you haven’t read it yet.

Next time you're in a meeting in which you feel there is a truth that isn't being said, speak up. Disturbing the equilibrium and rocking the boat may have consequences. So does silence.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom
Twitter: @SueU

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Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at media agency Mediacom.

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