Open Mouth, Close Career?

How do you talk about that problem at work that no one wants to talk about? Here’s how to stick out your neck without getting your head chopped off.


Quick quiz: What’s worse than getting bad news? Answer: being the person who has to deliver that news.


Sooner or later, it happens: You see a disaster in the making that everyone except you seems content to ignore. Maybe that make-or-break project is going to miss its deadline; maybe the new boss is in over her head; maybe those two dueling coworkers are poisoning the team’s morale. Whatever the problem, it’s big, it’s ugly, and it’s obvious, but nobody will speak up about it — unless you do.

When you need to be the bearer of bad news, how do you deliver the message without getting killed for being the messenger?

That was the question that confronted Carol Roberts, 38, of Memphis-based International Paper. Soon after she was brought in as vice president of people development, in late 1997, Roberts realized that people weren’t being developed. “We weren’t giving our employees open, honest feedback,” she says. “We had all kinds of processes in place to talk to our employees, but managers weren’t following through. We weren’t helping our people to progress, and we weren’t progressing as a company.”

But Roberts wasn’t anxious to call attention to the problem. She was new to her job — an unknown and untested quantity in a male-dominated industry. If she spoke up and questioned IP’s fundamental practices, she might get slapped down. Could she really afford to be a messenger?

“People hesitate to speak up at work, because they’re afraid,” says Dan Oestreich, 48, coauthor with Kathleen Ryan of “The Courageous Messenger: How to Successfully Speak Up at Work” (Jossey-Bass, 1996) and “Driving Fear Out of the Workplace: Creating the High-Trust, High-Performance Organization” (Jossey-Bass, 1998). “But that fear — of being labeled as a whiner, or as someone who isn’t a team player — prevents people from sharing criticisms and ideas that might ultimately benefit their companies.”


We asked Oestreich to walk us through four steps toward being an effective messenger. The process starts, he says, when you decide to stop ignoring a problem and instead become part of its solution. “It takes courage to speak out effectively,” he says. “Despite your good intentions, bringing up a touchy topic can blow up in your face.”

That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can deliver even the toughest message — if you have a strategy for doing so.

1. Deliver your message — to you.

You need to make clear that the problem is in the message, not with the messenger. So before you say anything to anybody, make sure that you’ve identified the problem clearly. “When I ask people what their true message is, they often realize that they have at least four or five of them,” says Oestreich. “The real challenge is to hone in on the core problem: What’s the message?”

IP’s Carol Roberts wrestled with that question and soon realized that she had, in fact, three messages. First, International Paper wasn’t walking its talk: Managers weren’t giving effective feedback to the people on the front lines. Second, this was an important issue: IP’s future depended on developing its people. And her third message? That her first two messages were unselfish: She wasn’t criticizing people just to get ahead.

“To get the company to commit to a new effort to develop its people, I had to win our top managers’ hearts and minds,” she says. “That meant forcing our senior people to think outside their comfort zones. They needed to know that I was doing this for the good of the company.”


When you deliver a harsh message, people get defensive. “The first thing people will do when you deliver bad news is question why you’re speaking up,” says Oestreich. “If you haven’t clearly explained your motivation, people are likely to assign selfish reasons to your actions. So talk about your reasons for bringing up a problem. Give people a reason to care.”

2. Face your fear — and get over it.

To deliver her message, Carol Roberts decided to bring together 33 of IP’s top managers for a two-day off-site in Memphis. “I couldn’t just order our senior executives to pay more attention to their people,” she says. “So I booked outside consultants to discuss the way these feedback processes should really work. Instead of simply telling people that we had a problem, I tried to get them to see it for themselves.”

In fact, Roberts was doing more than identifying a problem. As she soon found out, she was putting herself on the line. Just days before the meeting, she got a message from John Dillon, IP’s CEO. “He questioned my entire agenda,” she recalls. “He said he couldn’t see any reason for holding such a meeting, since we already had feedback processes in place. My heart sank. But then I decided to go ahead and hold the event anyway. The systems we had just weren’t working, and it was important to put that information on the table. I knew it was the right thing to do.”

Dillon let the event go on as planned — but not without making it clear to Roberts that he had grave reservations about the meeting. Roberts was wide-eyed the night before the off-site, as she feverishly outlined her opening talk. “There I was, new to the job, calling in the vice presidents and general managers of a $20 billion global company, and telling them that they weren’t doing enough to develop their employees,” she says. “If I didn’t engage them properly — if my effort flopped — I was dead.”

Knowing what you need to say doesn’t make saying it any easier. You still have to face your fear. “Even after you think through a tough message,” says Oestreich, “chances are, you’ll worry about the fallout. So the next step is to be realistic about the risks of speaking up. Put a face on your dread, and ask yourself where the fear comes from. Is it based on past experience with these people, or are you catastrophizing? Maybe you’re worried that the person you have to deal with will get mad. So what?


“For some people, the reward in speaking up is simply that they’ve quit giving life to a lie,” Oestreich continues. “It’s enough for them to make public the thing that everyone is talking about in private. The point is to balance the risks and the rewards, and to make a thoughtful decision on whether to be the messenger.”

You might even decide to shut up instead of speak up. “If you conclude that the wise thing to do is not to go forward — because, say, you don’t believe that the payoff is big enough — that’s fine,” Oestreich says. “The big problem comes when people let their fear of speaking up prevent them from even confronting an issue.”

3. Make it public.

Everything you’ve done thus far has been private. Now it’s time to go public, to meet face-to-face with the person who needs to hear your message. “If I was really going to effect change, I knew that I had to get right into the engine room of the company and win over the managers,” says Roberts. “It helped to know that these were good people who were invested in doing a better job. Why else would they have given me two days of their time on very little notice? I was counting on them to have the same epiphany that I’d had.”

When you take center stage, avoid throat clearing. Get your message out. Be direct. “You can open tactfully, but don’t waste time chitchatting,” advises Oestreich. “Indirection creates tension. Within the first minute, you should be into your message. Make your point. And then stop.”

Step back and give the listener some time to react. You’ve probably spent weeks thinking about this problem. But for the other person, the bomb has just been dropped. “Even if you’ve written a script, you can never guarantee the reaction you want,” says Oestreich. “You’re hitting someone with news that’s hard to take. If you don’t give him a chance to think it through, he’s likely to close the conversation because he can’t deal with it. And that’s the one reaction you don’t want.”


The more you trust your audience, the better the chance that your message will be listened to. That’s what Carol Roberts learned. “I opened by saying that no one in the room was satisfied with our efforts in developing people and that those present were the only ones who could figure out how to improve the situation — because I didn’t have a solution. That was a scary thing for me to say, because I was brought in to IP to provide answers. I was really opening myself up: If I lost this audience, I’d lose my credibility.

“But they knew we had a problem, and they were able to get at the beginning of a solution on the very first day,” she continues. “It amazed me, because these guys were essentially indicting their own behavior. Their attitude changed right before my eyes.”

4. Keep the conversation going.

When you deliver a tough message to someone, your relationship with that person will change. To make it change for the better, stay on message.

Carol Roberts knew that the off-site was just the beginning. “I had to make sure that we didn’t waste this event,” she says. “It was great that we learned a lot, but I knew that John Dillon would ask what we planned to do about it.”

For Roberts, staying on her message meant delivering a new one: She had to convince members of IP’s senior team that it was up to them to ensure that the company’s culture really changed. “We could have fluffed up some report on our results, but I didn’t,” she says. “Instead, we boiled a report down to a few simple conclusions.”


Roberts and her staff delivered their memo to IP’s senior-management team. One top executive took a look at the slim document and said, “Gee, Carol, it doesn’t look like you have a lot to show for that meeting.”

Roberts shot back: “Well, to tell you the truth, none of the managers expect us to produce a big document. But they are watching for your reaction — to see how seriously you take our conclusions.” It was the right message. The off-site had made clear that IP had failed to hold its line managers accountable for maintaining a dialogue with employees. Now those same managers had spelled out some solutions — and they needed backup from the top.

Being a messenger means being willing to deal with angry reactions. “People want to have influence; they want to be involved,” says Oestreich. “And getting involved means conflict. Collaboration does not occur in some happy world, where people always work in harmony. Meaningful collaboration requires relationships that can take punishment.”

Carol Roberts knows that she did the right thing by speaking up. This past July, at IP’s Human Issues and Management Conference, held in Silver Bay, New York, Dillon highlighted the improvements that resulted from Roberts’s off-site: The company adopted a new policy that requires employees to meet with their supervisor twice each year to discuss their overall performance and career development; and it appointed two “people champions” — watchdogs who will make sure that managers are developing people.

Roberts couldn’t have wished for a better outcome. But she’s been around long enough to know that speaking up doesn’t always guarantee a happy ending. “When you try to take people in a new direction, you have to look back to see if they’re still behind you. If you fail to follow through by building support for your message, you’ll be known as someone who’s outspoken — and who never gets results.”


Action Item: Unspeakable Bosses

Columbia University psychology professor Harvey Hornstein has written a book, “Brutal Bosses and Their Prey,” that’s based on 200 interviews with people who tried to take on their bosses. Before you open your mouth, advises Hornstein, think about the following hard-won lessons.

Brutal bosses don’t just survive — they thrive. That’s because they deliver exactly what their bosses want. Check to see whether the abusers in your company are protected – and whether those who talk back to them end up getting hammered.

Don’t suffer in silence. If you’ve spoken up and you’re getting picked on for it, talk about it with a trusted coworker. “Don’t pretend that you’re thick-skinned,” says Hornstein. “Doing so will almost invariably cause you to suffer more, not less.”

Don’t talk like a victim. When dealing with a difficult boss, never apologize and never confess. “These bosses smell blood,” says Hornstein. “Being humble invites assaults — it doesn’t blunt them.”

Coordinates: $12 “Brutal Bosses and Their Prey,” Penguin Putnam Inc.,, 800-788-6262


Sidebar: Open Mouth, Open Career

Hollywood is notorious for letting egos run the show: People assume that any attempt to speak up will be shot down. Rob Hummel, head of international post-production at DreamWorks SKG, has a different take. Here are his tips for getting people to challenge higher-ups like himself.

Demonstrate your concern. “I make it crystal clear to people that they can come to me when they’re angry,” says Hummel. “If they’re right, I’ll tell them so. If they’re wrong, I’ll tell them why.”

Follow through. Hummel once promoted a brilliant but difficult employee. People complained that having more power would make this person harder to deal with. Hummel didn’t renege on the promotion, but he promised to keep close tabs on the situation — and he did.

Be big enough to praise. Make note of good ideas, and don’t dump on someone who offers a less-than-brilliant insight. “I tell all of my people,” says Hummel, “that they’ll never learn anything if they aren’t willing to risk being wrong.”

Sidebar: Listen Up!

Thomas D. Zweifel is CEO of Swiss Consulting Group Inc., a firm based in New York City that helps companies like Citibank and Novartis AG to master the fine art of listening. Before you open your mouth, says Zweifel, be sure to open up your ears.


Think about how your message will be heard. Anticipate the personal prejudices that people in your audience bring to the table, and shape your comments accordingly.

Focus on how people are reacting to what you are saying. If you’re not connecting, you may need to toss out your script and to find a better way to state your case.

Listen one minute longer than is necessary. Sometimes that extra minute of silence on your part can be all that’s needed to get the other person to come around.

Listen for the gold. Remember that it might be the other person who arrives at the best solution. Either way, you both win.

Coordinates: Thomas Zweifel,


Sidebar: Language as a Power Tool

Each time you open your mouth, you reveal something about who you are. According to Sarah McGinty, teaching supervisor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and author of “Language as a Power Tool,” you communicate best when you tune your conversational style to fit your audience.

What’s the biggest misconception about how we use language? That conversational style is based on gender. It’s not — it’s based on power. When you’re in charge, the words you choose place you in the center of a situation. When you’re not in control, you use qualifiers. You insert little flags that signal that you’re not trying to run the conversation.

So what’s the point — to be bold by speaking boldly? Absolutely not. Sometimes you need to let other people direct the discussion. There are times when your conversational style is made more powerful by ceding power, so that other people can be heard.

Coordinates: Sarah McGinty, (“Language as a Power Tool” is due to be published by Warner Books in November 1999.)

Sidebar: We Have Spoken!

“Have you spoken up at work? Tell us your story.” We posted that request on Fast Company’s Web site, and boy, did people speak out. Here is an edited sampling of what they had to say. To join the conversation, visit the Web (


Emily, a writer and public-relations guru: “I’m notorious for speaking, but I never get into trouble because of it. I follow these rules: Don’t get personal. If you must get critical, be critical about work — not about the other person. Lobby hard for what you believe in, but be ready to give up a losing cause. Dead horses smell bad. At every opportunity, be positive. Your criticism will lose its punch if you’re constantly bitching.”

Chris, who works in international human resources for Mitsubishi Electric Corp.: “Six years ago, when I joined my company, I often kept quiet about things with which I disagreed. But I soon realized that ‘power’ doesn’t come only from seniority or title; it can also come through one’s contribution to the organization. I decided that it’s my responsibility — to myself and to my company — to voice my thoughts, regardless of what others might think of them. Life is too short to be a yes-man.”

Patrick, who works for one of Sweden’s oldest management institutes: “In my first position, I hardly ever spoke my true opinion — because of office politics. Eventually I decided to quit. I had a new job waiting, but I hadn’t told anyone. I had nothing to lose, so I feared no one. Guess what happened? I started enjoying my job again, and people enjoyed my straight answers and no-nonsense opinions. I decided to stay for another couple of months. Two years later, I’m still here.”

Michael Warshaw ( is a senior editor at Inc. magazine.

Sara Terry (, a Boston-based freelance writer, contributed the sidebars.