November 19, 2003: Reading Room

Leslie Perlow ’89 found that people who silence their opinions often experience stress. (Crown)

Keeping quiet at work — or not
Leslie Perlow ’89 advises people to speak up

By Kathryn Beaumont ’96

When one of Leslie Perlow ’89’s business students at the University of Michigan knocked on her door in January 1999 to ask for course credit for an independent project, Perlow had no idea that she was about to embark on a 19-month journey that would culminate in her second book, When You Say Yes but Mean No: How Silencing Conflict Wrecks Relationships and Companies . . . and What You Can Do About It, published by Crown this year.

The student was starting an Internet company with friends, and Perlow, who as an ethnographer spends long periods of time in corporations observing their quotidian functions, decided to spend just a day at the new dot-com. But the atmosphere at the start-up intrigued her, and she went back day after day to observe more. “I thought it would make me a better business school professor,” explains Perlow, who, up to that point, had never hung around a dot-com.

She took reams of notes — binders that have taken over the shelves of her office at Harvard Business School, where she has been a professor since 2000. But it wasn’t until Perlow began to comb through them almost a year-and-a-half later that she realized many of the problems encountered by the fledgling company came up because people didn’t speak their minds.

She began to see that when people withhold their differences — even with the best intentions, to preserve a relationship or get a project done on time — the outcome is negative and sometimes very costly. At the dot-com, for example, during a meeting between the student founders and professional managers, every time someone brought up a problem or disagreement about the company’s future, someone changed the topic. The company continued with no clear direction and ultimately went bankrupt.

To make sure this dynamic wasn’t unique to a start-up dot-com, Perlow interviewed some 60 other professionals, from doctors to lawyers to consultants, and includes their stories in the book. According to Perlow, who earned a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from M.I.T., there is a lot of business research on the idea of expressing differences to promote creativity and innovation, yet there’s a dearth of research on what happens when differences are not shared. These differences build on each other, she says, creating a silent spiral.

She found that those who fail to reveal their thoughts often experience stress, dissatisfaction, cynicism, and even depression. “Those who do not speak up often come to perceive that their perspectives do not matter and experience declining interest in work and disengagement from the organization,” she says. Productivity plummets, creativity suffers.

“What my research suggests is that if we deal with our differences early before they have had time to fester,” she says, “it will be much easier to confront them and much less costly to do so.” It might be better, she suggests, if people seek mutual understanding, not agreement. Senior managers, she adds, should encourage employees to speak out. “Timing is key,” says Perlow. “Wait until emotions have dissipated, but don’t wait indefinitely.”

Kathryn Beaumont ’96 is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Book Shorts

Fatima’s Good Fortune — Joanne and GERRY DRYANSKY ’59 (Miramax).This husband-and-wife team’s contemporary novel is built around the life of a Tunisian maid, Fatima, who is summoned to Paris when her sister, the maid to an exacting countess, dies. At first, Fatima finds herself baffled by her new life, but soon her luck changes. Gerry Dryansky is the European editor of Condé Nast Traveler, based in Paris. Joanne Dryansky is a screenwriter.

Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier — edited by BORIS FISHMAN ’01 (Justin, Charles & Co.). This anthology of short fiction about the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe gathers stories by 12 young authors — émigrés to the West and Americans abroad — writing about the region today. The collection includes a story about a staged love affair between a C.I.A. agent and a Czech intelligence officer and a story about the victims of Russia’s war in Chechnya. Fishman is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker.

The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century — PAUL KRUGMAN (Norton). In this collection of op-ed columns from the New York Times and other articles, Krugman chronicles how the boom economy has unraveled. From tax cuts to the growing deficit, Krugman blames the Bush administration for the nation’s financial woes. Krugman is a professor of economics and international affairs.

By Lucia S. Smith ’04

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