Book Review: When You Say Yes but Mean No

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When You Say Yes but Mean No

by Leslie A. Perlow
Crown Business
272 pages

How Silencing Conflict
Wrecks Companies

Within a corporate meeting where everyone seems to agree can lurk an underlying shadow of dissent and disagreement. But, because corporate work culture prefers harmony over discord, many people often nod their heads in agreement when they should be shaking their heads in disapproval. This ever-present problem, which can result in small frustrations and giant business debacles, is a result of an atmosphere where losing one’s job is a risk, and initiating conflict seems to undermine important business relationships.

Leslie Perlow, a cultural anthropologist and associate professor at Harvard Business School, explores the hidden issues behind what people say and don’t say, and reveals a new perspective on relationships and the power of positive conflict. The results of her fieldwork and hundreds of interviews provide fresh insights into the destructive nature of silenced conflict on business partnerships and personal relationships.

The Silent Spiral

Perlow writes that each act of silencing makes us more likely to silence the next time, and the next. When we get caught in this “silent spiral,” she writes, we are silencing ourselves at the high cost of ourselves, our relationships, and the work we do.

Silencing a difference, managing an emotion, and feigning agreement do not get rid of unresolved differences. They merely cause internal discomfort that will cause us to blame someone for the negative emotion or deny it exists. Instead of going away, the negative emotion festers and, according to Perlow, causes us “to become self-protective in our relationship, and the climate in the relationship quickly disintegrates to one characterized by distrust and fear,” perpetuating the silencing. Keeping part of ourselves out of a relationship and holding our thoughts inside cause frustration, anxiety and even anger.

When You Say Yes but Mean No delves into the ways silencing affects work and organizations, and offers ways we can avoid the detrimental effects of silencing that prevent the achievement of mutual understanding.

Some of the reasons why stifling divergent points of view can be harmful include:

• Fewer new ideas emerge and alternative courses of action are not explored.

• Unexpressed negative emotions fester and build to destroy interactions, teamwork and relationships.

• Managers and executives do not get the useful information they need to make the best decisions.

• Productivity and creativity suffer while cynicism runs rampant.

Pent up feelings that cannot be expressed in a mutual dialogue can result in withdrawal, which can kill motivation and engagement. When we feel like our thoughts don’t matter, we feel undervalued and disengage from our work and our organization. This can lead to low job satisfaction for individuals and high turnover costs for firms.

Stop Blaming Others

Perlow offers solutions for people who are stuck in the silent spiral, whether they are managers or their subordinates. Solutions include:

• Stop blaming others and take responsibility for dealing with divergent points of view.

• Recognize that subordinates have power, too.

• Act deviant and realize that deviance is a way to search out and invent new approaches to doing things.

• Build coalitions and gain the advantage of more legitimacy and resources. ~

Why We Like ThIS Book

When You Say Yes but Mean No offers numerous case studies that characterize the concepts Perlow explores and reveal the underlying issues that should be explored but often go unrecognized, leading to even more, larger difficulties. By looking deeply into motivation, productivity and creativity in the light of a pervasive underlying problem that plagues almost every organization, Perlow offers a better way to make business and personal relationships stronger while promoting teamwork and open communication.
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