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When Silence Isn't Golden

By Liz Ryan Before you have children, it's fun to imagine the advice you'll give them someday. What you'll discover, though, is that your kids don't want it. At least mine don't. But if they did, here's what I would say: Seek out and relish scary situations. They're the best learning experiences when it comes to dealing with people.

I'm not talking about mountain-biking off cliffs, walking in the woods at night, or any sort of recklessness, mind you. I mean those personal encounters where you're forced to say something bold, deal with conflict, or stand up for yourself.

Usually, you can avoid such discomfort by keeping your head down and your mouth shut. But if you do that, you'll miss out on learning to handle such situations when they inevitably arise -- not to mention the confidence-boosting effect of taking a stand when it counts.

'YES' MEANS NOTHING. You can see conflict-averse people in any workplace. They're getting along, avoiding controversy, turning the other cheek when someone insults them. Employees often develop elaborate behaviors based on fear of situations that desperately require confrontation.

If you're one of these types, you may have deluded yourself into imagining that you're handling situations appropriately by smiling and caving in at every turn. But eventually, your career will suffer. As Grandma used to say, "your 'yes' means nothing if you never say 'no.'"

I had a bout with conflict avoidance myself when I was younger. That even may be why I chose the human resources profession -- I naively thought that HR was about making employees happy. As if!

BITTER TRUTH. So I approached my job with the notion that I would be the bluebird of HR happiness -- flitting around, dispensing pixie dust to employees while solving their dental-plan dilemmas. That worked for maybe my first two weeks.

Before long, I realized I would never succeed without at some point, in some way, making someone unhappy. That someone might be the ditched 401(k) provider, or the job candidate who wasn't going to be hired. It might be a manager who had the nifty idea of hiring an admin for his admin, so the original admin would have management experience. There was no shortage of situations ready-made for disappointment.

And I would stress over and delay these moments of confrontation, and wince and stumble and apologize, because it was hard for me to deliver bad news, no matter the reason. But then fortune smiled on me and delivered a situation that forced me to deal with the issue.

INTRUSIVE IDIOT. Not a year into one of my HR jobs the company hired a purchasing manager who was -- how shall I put it? -- an idiot. Essentially, this person spent the first few weeks on the job strutting around, letting everyone know that it was a new era, that a real purchasing manager had arrived, and that things were going to change.

Specifically, this person intended to take control of each and every purchasing decision in the company -- literally, every purchase made by every department. Such an intrusion would have been disastrous.

Naturally, I had suppliers: I bought insurance plans, financial services products for employees, headhunting and consulting services, recruitment advertising, training programs, payroll services, you name it. I had maybe 50 of such relationships.

RECIPE FOR AN ULCER. I thought I got excellent value for our money. But the purchasing manager was clear: I was slated to exit the purchasing process, even for HR budget items. I was horrified. I couldn't sleep for worrying about it.

Finally, I realized that if this punk went this far, I would have to quit. Just then, a little voice in my brain spoke up. It said: "If the company is foolish enough to let a goofy plan like this go forward, it doesn't deserve to have you."

My next thought was "What's my plan?" Waiting around to see how the new purchasing procedure would work sounded like a recipe for an ulcer, on top of which it was incredibly wimpy.

CONFRONTATION. No way, I thought. I'm HR: I'm the Minister of Culture, and from a cultural standpoint this plan is whack. If I'm disturbed, how must the marketing vice-president feel? She buys ad space, trade-show booths, Web design, art work -- that's a huge part of her job! I have an obligation to deal with this jerk.

And so I did. The next morning I went to see the purchasing manager and said: "I've heard bits and pieces of your idea for changing our purchasing process. Can you fill me in?"

Once I heard the description of this person's plan for world domination, I asked a few questions. "How would your background in supply-chain management improve the way our company buys retained search services?"

BAD FOR BIZ. "Can you tell me about your knowledge of PR agencies, and how that would equip you to make purchasing decisions regarding them?"

"Can you help me understand how inserting you into these mission-critical relationships will improve our business?"

I listened, and then I said: "I'm 100% against your plan. I want to let you know that, and I will share that opinion with our CEO, CFO, and the rest of the management team. I think your idea is very bad for our business."

The shocked reply was: "Go ahead and fight me, I'm not scared of you." That was the retort -- verbatim. Oh geez, I thought, here's a would-be Evander Holyfield.

GETTING THE HANG OF IT. Ultimately, of course, the purchasing turkey's plan didn't fly. We had a qualified and successful leadership group, every member of which had excellent reasons to resist the proposed program, vs. one tough-talking turf-grabber with no track record in the company -- who ended up lasting maybe six months. But I was grateful! No business situation ever before had required me to be so forceful. Bye-bye, Bluebird!

Scary situations are gifts. When one arises, you think "Oh man, not again." But each time you tackle an icky interpersonal thing, you get better at it. The universe puts these trials in your way for a reason.

For two reasons, in fact: So you can learn that conflict isn't a bad thing, and get really good at managing it. And so you have great stories to tell your kids -- when you can get them to listen. Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT

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