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When You Say Yes but Mean No : How Silencing Conflict Wrecks Relationships and Companies... and What You can Do about It

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2003-05-01
  • Publisher: Crown Pub
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List Price: $25.00


We live in a cultureespecially at workthat prefers harmony over discord, agreement over dissent, speed over deliberation. We often smile and nod to each other even though deep down we could not disagree more. Whether with colleagues, friends, or family members, the tendency to paper over differences rather than confront them is extremely common. We believe that the best thing to do to preserve our relationships and to ensure that our work gets done as expeditiously as possible is to silence conflict. Let's face it, most bosses don't encourage us to share our differences. Indeed, many people are taught that loyal employees accept corporate values, policies, and decisionsnever challenging or questioning them. If we want to hold on to our jobs and move up in our organizations, stifling conflict is the safest way to do itor so we believe. And it is not just with our bosses that we fear raising a dissenting opinion. We worry about what our peers and even our subordinates may think of us. We don't want to embarrass ourselves or create a bad impression. We don't want to lose others' respect or risk rejection. We often associate conflict with its negative formpetty bickering, heated arguing, a bloody fight. But conflict can also be a source of creative energy; when handled constructively by both parties, differences can lead to a healthy and fruitful collaboration, creation, or construction of new knowledge or solutions. When we silence conflict, we avoid the possibility of negative conflict, but we also miss the potential for constructive conflict. Worse yet, as Leslie Perlow documents, the act of silencing conflict may create the consequences we most dread. Tasks frequently take longer or never get done successfully, and silencing conflict over important issues with people for whom we care deeply can result in disrespect for, and devaluing of, those same people. Each time we silence conflict, we create an environment in which we're all the more likely to be silent next time. We get caught in a vicious "silent spiral," making the relationship progressively less safe, less satisfying, and less productive. Differences get glossed over, patched over, and suppressed . . . until disaster happens. "Saying yes when you really mean no" is a problem that haunts organizations from start-ups to multi- nationals. It exists across industries, levels, and functions. And it's exacerbated by a down economy, when the fear of losing one's job is on everybody's mind and the idea of allowing conflict to surface or disagreeing with others seems particularly risky. All too often, the conversation at work bespeaks harmony and togetherness, even though passionate disagreements exist beneath the surface. Leslie A. Perlow is a corporate ethnographer, an anthropologist of corporate culture. Anthropologists like Margaret Mead spend years in the field studying exotic cultures. Perlow does the same, although the field for her is the office and the exotic people are usthose who work in the world of organizations. But the end result is no less surprising or rich in insight. Whether it's a Fortune 500 firm, small business, or government bureaucracy, Perlow provides a keen understanding of the hidden issues behind what people say (and don't say). And more important, she shows how to create relationships where individuals feel empowered to express their genuine thoughts and feelings and to harness the power of positive conflict.

Author Biography

LESLIE A. PERLOW is an associate professor at Harvard Business School. She received her Ph.D. from MIT <br>and is the author of<b> Finding Time</b>, published by Cornell University Press.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Covering Up Rather Than Confronting Differencep. 1
The Unacknowledged Costs of Silencing Conflict
The Many Forms of Silencep. 13
Why the Rules of the Game Favor Silencep. 25
How the Silent Spiral Worksp. 35
The Costs of Saying Yes When You Mean Nop. 42
The Speed Trapp. 52
The Silent Spiral in Motion
What Clyde and Howie Wouldn't Sayp. 67
The Founders and the New CEO Mask Their Differencesp. 94
No One's Explaining, No One's Askingp. 120
Bad Endingsp. 141
Escaping the Silent Spiral
Effectively Expressing Differencep. 159
Finding Support and Supporting Othersp. 180
Epilogue: What Might Have Been...p. 193
Endnotesp. 201
Acknowledgmentsp. 239
Indexp. 243
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.

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Covering Up Rather Than Confronting Difference

The members of Versity’s top management team seemed of one mind and ready to tackle the challenges facing their business. After a long day of team-building exercises and animated discussions about the company’s future, they remained in their seats around a horseshoe-shaped table in a nondescript hotel conference room in Redwood City, California. Nine hours earlier, Peter, the company’s soft-spoken chief executive officer, alluding to the crisis that the company faced about its strategy, had stated: “Our goal today is to all end up on the same page. We are currently moving in an unclear direction, and we need to be more clear.”

Two months earlier, Peter had joined Versity and had hired a team of professional managers to help the four young founders to continue to expand their company. Now Jill, the self-assured head of public relations, having volunteered to lead the day’s events, handed each of them a hotdog-shaped balloon, the kind that clowns give out at the circus. She asked them to take turns expressing their reactions to the day’s events, including whether their expectations had been met and how they felt at the moment. After people spoke, they were to attach their balloon to the previous speakers’ balloons, thus gradually creating a sculpture. Hal, the newly hired acting head of marketing, went first. “My expectations were met,” he said. “Jill, you did a great job. We made some great progress today. . . . It feels great. I am excited . . . passionate . . . committed to the future.” Dave, the newly hired head of product development, continued: “The consistency of vision and purpose is good to hear. We are pretty similar in what we are thinking. We are not automatons, but consistency is good.” Jim, the new chief financial officer, boasted: “I am happy. I thought today was going to be a lot uglier. I expected battles. Yet things were remarkably consistent.” Peter added: “It was a good starting point. Jill did a good job keeping us moving. I enjoyed today.” The company’s founders also expressed relief at the consistency they had heard. Clyde, the business brains behind the company, sounded pleased: “After today I am more comfortable that we are all on the same page.” And Howie, the technical guru, shared: “It was neat to have everyone in the same room together. I was quiet because I wanted to hear what others had to say. I wanted to hear from the new people, with new ideas and new perspectives. It seems we all pretty much agree on what is going on. Thank you.”

Peter ended the day’s events by suggesting that everyone go downstairs to the hotel bar and have a beer to celebrate. The meeting broke up, but before heading to the bar and then out for dinner, most people gathered to admire their balloon sculpture, with its bright colors and all its contortions, twists, and turns.

Everyone had gone into the day’s events deeply worried about a lack of consensus. They were particularly concerned that a schism was developing between the founders and the new professional managers over the company’s purpose. Yet, at the end of the meeting, they all expressed joy about their level of agreement.

Privately, though, many despaired. When the four founders gathered the next night to reflect on the “vision meeting,” as they called it, Howie snickered, “What a waste. Nothing was accomplished.” He paused, took a deep breath, and continued, “We are directionless. We used to know what was going on. But we lost our goal. Now we have no focus. We are bobbing in water. We have no momentum. We should be reacting and changing, yet nothing is happening.” The other three nodded in agreement.

The professional managers also had outwardly expressed pleasure about the consensus everyone voiced. However, they too felt that nothing had been accomplished. They weren’t as surprised by this result, though, since they had been through this kind of meeting many times before. While Peter didn’t mention it to anyone on his management team, he was convinced they would need to meet again to reach closure on their goals.

After the meeting the professional managers continued to question whether the core market for their educational product should remain college students or should instead become professors. Indeed, no attempt had been made to answer this fundamental question at the meeting. And deep down, they all knew they still disagreed. No one, however, dared raise the issue. The founders continued to focus on college students, the company’s target market since its start. The professional managers, including Peter, shifted their focus toward professors–the market they had come to believe had to be the company’s future focus. No one said anything about the divide. They all just forged ahead, pursuing the goal they perceived to matter most. The company, however, sorely lacked the human and financial resources to pursue these two paths simultaneously.

Still, no one wanted to confront this reality and force a choice. Rather, they wanted to preserve their relationships and their business. Both Peter and his new hires, as well as the company’s four founders, deeply appreciated how much they needed one another to make the company a success. They also recognized that speed was of the essence and that they had no time to waste. Not wanting to put their relationships or their business in jeopardy, no one spoke up. Within nine months, the company was bankrupt.

Whether between colleagues, friends, or family members, the tendency to cover over differences rather than confront them is all too common. In important relationships–from the boardroom to the bedroom–we often find ourselves smiling and nodding when deep down we couldn’t disagree more. We believe that the best thing to do to preserve our relationships and to ensure that our work gets done as expeditiously as possible is to remain quiet. What we are doing is silencing conflict.


Conflict is not by nature good or bad. Conflict simply means difference–difference of opinion or interests. Throughout this book, I use the words conflict and difference interchangeably. And I use the term silencing conflict to refer to anytime people do not fully confront their differences. Often people speak openly about their differences but do so in the hallway, or around the water cooler, or behind closed doors–out of earshot of the person with whom they differ. Sometimes people do mention their differences to one another but fail to do so in a way that they are understood.

Silencing conflict encompasses a range of behaviors, from never speaking differences aloud to ending a discussion of differences before they are fully understood. We are silencing conflict if we become quiet despite perceiving that the other party does not understand why we think, feel, or believe as we do. We are also silencing conflict if we end a discussion before we’ve done our best to understand the “why” behind the other party’s thoughts, feelings, or behavior.


We often associate conflict with its negative forms–petty bickering, a bloody fight, physical violence, even war. But conflict can also be a source of creative energy; when handled constructively by both parties, differences can lead to a healthy and fruitful collaboration, a co-creation or co-construction of new knowledge or solutions. With constructive conflict, the end result is different from and better than any of the initial, individual perspectives; opposing parties come together to realize their respective goals and work together toward a win-win outcome. When we silence conflict, we avoid the possibility of negative conflict, but we also miss the potential for constructive conflict.

When differences are kept quiet, we limit creativity, learning, and effective decision making. Creativity and learning require novel ideas–seeing and doing things in new ways–but when differences are considered unacceptable, novel ideas are less likely to emerge. When we don’t feel comfortable expressing our differences, we are also less likely to disclose errors and take risks, both of which are necessary for learning to occur. And when we do not share perspectives and information, decision making can suffer, because we are less apt to explore the pros and cons of various solutions.

Silencing conflict also affects individual performance. When we feel we can’t share our differences, we may lose interest in and disengage from our work. The result can be increased stress, lack of motivation, high job turnover, and sometimes even sabotage.

Even worse, although we often silence conflict because we believe it is the right thing to do, the best thing to do, the only way to preserve important relationships and get on with the task at hand, acting on this belief may create the consequences we most dread. Silencing conflict about important issues with people for whom we care deeply can result in disrespect for, and devaluing of, those same people. It can create a whole underworld in which differences become an increasingly destructive force. Each time we silence conflict, we create an environment in which we’re all the more likely to silence next time. Silencing conflict creates resentment, anger, and frustration in a person. These negative emotions turn into a powerful and harmful agent, making one feel increasingly self-protective in the relationship and therefore all the more fearful about speaking up. As a result, more acts of silence follow. We get caught spinning in a vicious “silent spiral,” making the relationship progressively less safe, less satisfying, and less productive.

In addition, when there is pressure to go fast, people are all the more likely to silence their differences to keep things moving as quickly as possible. And, the act of silencing, in turn, creates negative consequences that often result in problems that take time and attention to resolve. With the mounting work from these additional problems, the sense of urgency intensifies, and so too does the pressure to silence. Ultimately, the pressure to go fast feeds on itself, further intensifying the destructive nature of the silent spiral.

Had the management team at Versity–both the founders and the new professional hires–recognized the costs of silence and instead spoken up about their differences at the offsite vision meeting, the future of their company might have been different. Instead of pursuing two independent paths, the team might have found a shared purpose that built on their different perspectives and goals. But all this potential was lost when the members failed to discuss their differences.


For me this book began its life one January afternoon in 1999, when Clyde stopped by my office at the University of Michigan. Clyde had been one of 160 undergraduate business majors in my organizational behavior class the previous year. Now, he explained, he needed one course to remain an active student during the semester. Would I supervise an independent study for him? He told me he was planning to spend the semester working with three other students who had founded an online education company called Versity.com, short for “university.” I agreed to oversee Clyde’s independent study, and before the conversation was over, I asked if I could see the company for myself.

I’m an organizational ethnographer. This means that, like an anthropologist, I spend large amounts of time in the field observing a culture–the only difference being that the field is the office and the culture is the corporate environment. My previous ethnographies had covered a range of workplaces, from major American corporations to European and Asian businesses.

However, when, a week later, I drove to Versity’s office in Ypsilanti, a blue-collar suburb on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, I had no intention of embarking on another research project. I visited only because I wanted to meet these young entrepreneurs and see a dot-com in action. Many were already making millions of dollars in Silicon Valley, but in my college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, dot-coms were still a novelty.

During my first visit, I was impressed by the dedication, maturity, and accomplishments of the four young founders. After that initial visit, I found myself returning on several more occasions. Each time, I intended to stop by for only a few hours, but I ended up staying late into the night, filling notebook after notebook with observations. A couple of visits eventually turned into a nineteen-month obsession.

One of the surprises from my early visits was that the organizational dynamics inside this dot-com were not so different from those in the larger, more traditional, bricks-and-mortar businesses I’d previously studied. The big difference was the speed and intensity of the office. Everything happened at an accelerated pace–from business development to product release–and everything seemed to have higher stakes. These factors, I quickly realized, brought otherwise hidden issues into sharp relief, revealing aspects of work relationships that are often difficult to discern in the typical one- to two-year study of an ethnography. Thus, Versity provided a way for me to gain insight into the fundamentals of my field–organizational behavior–by giving me a richer understanding of how people interact, and with what consequences. It was the equivalent of an epidemiologist studying a disease during a major epidemic. The conditions were optimal to observe patterns or trends that might otherwise be latent.

Studying Versity further provided an opportunity to explore how speed itself affects our interaction patterns and ultimately our relationships and our work output. In a society in which the goal so often is to find ways to do more in less time, studying Versity provided a rare opportunity to glimpse where we may well be headed. I have always been a student of time, trying to understand how we use time at work, why we use it in the ways that we do, and what consequences our patterns of time usage have for ourselves, our co-workers, and the organizations in which we work. Studying Versity enabled me to further explore what happens when our interactions suddenly increase in pace.

By the time I completed the fieldwork, I’d taken approximately ten thousand pages of notes and had conducted hundreds of interviews with everyone involved with the company. I had observed everything from top-level management meetings to hallway gossip to late-night beers at local bars. During the months I spent at Versity, I observed people’s actions and listened to their public conversations, but I also developed relationships that made people comfortable in sharing private thoughts and feelings with me. I therefore had the privilege of listening to people speak to each other, and of knowing what they were not saying. I noticed early on that colleagues weren’t being completely frank with one another. They didn’t want to endanger the success of their venture, so they shied away from differences. They smiled when they were seething; they nodded when deep down they couldn’t have disagreed more. They pretended to accept differences for the sake of preserving their relationships and their business. And, the more people silenced themselves, the more pressure they felt to silence themselves again next time.

Observing the tendency to silence conflict at Versity stirred my curiosity about the existence of such a phenomenon in other domains. How much of what I had observed was simply due to the pervasive sense of urgency in the dot-com world? I conducted interviews with a range of different people to explore that question. I interviewed friends, family members, students, and strangers. I was not looking for a random sample. I was just seeking to better understand where silencing conflict might occur and at what cost. I spoke to doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, and consultants. I spoke to officers in the military and directors of nonprofits. I spoke to those who ran companies and to those who reported to them. I spoke to people just out of college and to others ready to retire. I talked to people about their work lives and about their home lives.

When I began telling people about the idea behind this book–namely, the silencing of conflict and its unacknowledged costs–they would invariably respond, “That’s the story of my company,” or, “You are writing about my marriage.” One of my business school students, who had previously been an investment banker, told me, “You could be writing my biography.”

In the four years since Clyde came to my office to ask for course credit, I have learned about the destructive effects of silencing conflict, on everything from business partnerships to personal relationships. I have seen how these acts of silencing build on each other, creating the dangerous syndrome I call the “silent spiral.” And I have come to appreciate how the need for speed fuels the silent spiral. But I have learned as well that we can free ourselves from this syndrome. And more than that, if we can effectively express our differences, we can instead create a constructive spiral of speaking up.

In order to share the stories I’ve heard and the lessons I’ve learned, I have divided the book into three parts. Part I uses “episodes,” or single snapshots, of silencing conflict to elaborate the concept–to show where it occurs, how it gets perpetuated, and at what costs. The story of the rise and fall of Versity, detailed in Part II, illustrates how episodes of silencing build on each other to create the silent spiral, inflicting cumulative damage on relationships and performance at work. The story of Versity further shows how the need for speed makes the silent spiral all the more vicious. Part III then focuses on the pressing need to express our differences–and how to do so most effectively. At the end of the book, I return to the Versity story to explore one final question: What might have been the outcome had the members of Versity effectively expressed their differences?

Excerpted from When You Say Yes but Mean No: How Silencing Conflict Wrecks Relationships and Companies... and What You can Do about It by Leslie Perlow
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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