The true cost of not speaking up

What’s the cost of you not speaking up at work and sharing your thoughts, opinions, or knowledge?

a) Nothing

b) A life

c) 35 lives

d) $1.3 billion

e) Something else

You probably think the answer is a) nothing, after all, there are plenty of times when you’ve not said things when you could and nothing’s happened. However, for some people the answer has actually been b, c or d.

In 1980, Geoff Plum and David Powell were doing some maintenance and dropped a wrench which damaged the thing they were working on. Unfortunately, they were working on a Titan missile which was sitting underneath a nuclear warhead, and the missile began to leak rocket fuel.

The pair were unwilling to speak up about the cause of the fuel leak until after the evacuation of an entire army base was evacuated, with the exception of two airmen sent in to resolve the leak, but it was too late. The missile exploded, destroying the base, sending the warhead miles into the Arkansas countryside, and killing one of the airmen. Their unwillingness to speak the truth cost an airman his life.

In 1988, a rail inspector identified some faulty old wiring at a railway signal, just south of Clapham Junction in South London. The inspector was unwilling to report his findings over concerns for rocking the boar with his employer, and on 12th December, a passenger train crashed into a second train, leading to 35 fatalities and over 480 injured passengers.

His unwillingness to rock the boat cost the lives of 35 people, but destroyed the lives of many others who lost loved ones.

In 1995, financial trader Nick Leeson went about his job making riskier and riskier trades, to the point where his losses reached $1.3 billion, which happened to be about twice the market capital of his employer, the 200+ year old Barings Bank. The bank went bust and Leeson ended up in jail.

However, there were some senior managers in the bank who were aware of Leeson’s approach to risk, had put him in a situation where he was supervising his own trades. Their inability to speak up and address their concerns cost a considerable amount of money and caused huge disruption to the lives of bank employees around the world.

It’s true that most of us don’t work in jobs were our failure to speak up would have such large consequences, but there will be consequences none the less, which makes e) the most likely answer.

“A black-and-white shot of a woman putting a finger over her lips in a gesture of silence” by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

If you’re in a meeting and while your listening to the speaker you identify an issue with the proposal being put forward. If you don’t speak up, the proposal might get accepted and subsequently fail, costing the business more money than it should have done.

If you have an idea for how to improve an inefficient process, which would save the organisation an hour a day, but you aren’t prepared to push your idea forward, then the organisation continues to waste hundreds of hours of time that it could be using to do something that adds more value.

Yes, it’s some times difficult to speak up.

Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

You might worry about talking in front of others. You might worry about being wrong, or of being seen as stupid. You might worry about upsetting the people whose idea you’re commenting on.

You might be in a business where you worry that saying the wrong thing might cost you your job, or might cost the business the next deal, or damage your relationship with your colleagues.

It could simply be the fear of muddling up your words and sounding silly, but, what’s the cost of not communicating?

Can your career afford for you not to speak up?

Can your colleagues afford for you not to help them out when you have some insight?

Can your organisation afford for you not to contribute fully and do what in reality they pay you for?

Speaking up might some times be difficult, but so can not speaking up, and at least when you speak up you can see what might be, whereas if you keep quiet you’ll always think about what could have been.

Written by

Helping people kick start their product management career at * Product person at Watchfinder

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