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When to Drop the Big One at Work

Updated: Mar 11, 2019

When in doubt about whether to share what’s on your mind or engage a tough situation, its usually best to lean towards taking the risk. The core concepts, principles, creative strategies, and toxic behavior profiles covered on this blog are here to help you do that.

After all, it’s the many small mundane interactions of each day that provide us with most of the opportunities to build better relationships with colleagues and push a team toward more candor and transparency.

However, there are some opportunities that you should indeed approach with more thoughtful care and consideration.

Some conflicts are like firecrackers. They make a big sound, but aren’t really that risky. Other conflicts are potential neutron bombs; things that will undoubtedly send massive shockwaves through a relationship or organization.

I’m occasionally asked the hard question: How do you know if, and when, you should drop “the big one”? How do you know that it’s time to say the thing that you know will be hugely disruptive, and perhaps, no one wants to hear?

There are no hard and fast rules. Each situation is unique. You ultimately need to make your own decisions. But here are four criteria that I’ve used and recommended throughout the years to know when it might be time to press the big red button.

Is it true?

I don’t mean that is feels true to you. I mean, is it literally and demonstrably true? Do you truly know that the facts you are about to lay out are correct?

We all have our own emotional and subjective reactions to certain experiences and situations. What might be a big deal to one person might not be experienced that way by another. While these types of conflicts and events are certainly worth discussing, they usually revolve around misunderstandings and unintentional harm due to thoughtlessness or ignorance.

If you are going to potentially permanently alter a relationship, individually or with a team, by saying that thing that can’t be un-said, be sure that you have the unassailable facts of the situation and not just a hunch or impression.

Everyone is occasionally prone to undue suspicion, fear, and fragility in relationships. This can skew our judgement of people and situations. Before you act on the biggest things, be sure you have your own crazy in check.

I’ve been an organizational consultant and leadership coach for more than a decade-and-a-half. I have a master’s degree in counseling and a Ph.D. in adult learning. And you know what? My first impressions and assessments of a situation are sometimes completely wrong. Give yourself plenty of time to process and confirm your conclusions before moving on to the next question.

Does it need to be said?

Just because something might be true, doesn’t mean it needs to be said out loud. We all notice lots of things about others with whom we work. Maybe you have some formal psychology training. Maybe you have great street-smarts and are just really good at figuring out what makes other people tick. Perhaps you are a highly advanced human lie detector. So what?

Just because you’ve noticed something about a person, doesn’t necessarily mean you need to verbalize it.

Judicious candor is refreshing in a relationship. Compulsively sharing everything you might happen to notice about someone is annoying. It can also be a form of passive-aggressive bullying if left un-checked.

Before you speak, be sure that what are sharing is for everyone’s benefit and not only yours. If you’re a leader, put the needs of others above your own.

Does it need to be said by me?

Alright, now we’re getting closer to storming that beach. If it’s true and you’re convinced it needs to be said, that doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be said by you.

Maybe the issue that’s gnawing at you is far outside of your realm of responsibility. Maybe you lack key pieces of information to which others might have access. If so, unless it’s a foundational ethical, safety, or legal concern, it might be wise to stay out of it. Some things are truly not your problem. Other things are (thankfully) none of your business.

Before you hit the “go” button, be sure that the issue at hand is fully within your professional charge. If it is, then you might have a responsibility to act. If not, it might be more appropriate to poke the person who’s really supposed to be doing something about it.

Does it need to be said now?

Okay. It’s true. It needs to be said and you’re the one who likely has a responsibility to say it. The last question is whether this is the right time and place.

Truth has power. It should be delivered like a medicine, not wielded like a weapon.

No one likes a grandstander. The urge to “get it all out there” should be secondary to choosing the time and place likely to actually make the most positive impact.

For instance, someone once knowingly called me at a cousin's funeral to confront me about a recent interaction. The issue was legitimate. The choice of time and place was, shall we say, unhelpful.

Choose a setting in which the people most likely to be impacted will be most able to hear the message. This does not mean that it’s your job to make things easy on people, help them avoid discomfort, or even control the fallout. Just make sure the setting enhances, and doesn’t overwhelm, the message.

If all of the above conditions are satisfied, you can likely crack open that big issue with relative confidence. It might not be easy. It might not be fun. But it just might be time to drop the big one.

Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.

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