Empty Words

Speaking when you have nothing to say is a waste of everyone’s time

So much has been said and written about the value inherent in speaking up, and most of them are valid. The fear of speaking in public has been ranked the number one fear of all time, and there are numerous reasons why people don't speak up, especially in a workplace environment.

Some may think that it's pointless because of their peculiar situation, whatever that may be. In his blog, Ron Ashkenas noted that others may simply lack the confidence, candor and courage. Then, there are those instances when an ethical dilemma may make someone suddenly go mute.

But how about those situations when people should keep quiet and they don’t?

Because most people have been sold on the merits of speaking, especially in a workplace meeting environment, can we ever have a situation where people speak when they shouldn't? Yes, we can! And I've seen it happen a few times.

When the culture of a place is dependent on how much people speak, things can quickly degenerate into chaos. Meetings could be filled with those who feel the need to say something even when they have nothing to contribute to the discussion. At the end, there’s so much talk with nothing concrete coming out of it.

This type of scenario is typical in places where the leadership rewards people who speak more and punish those who speak less. While the rewards and punishments could be subtle, those involved can easily pick up on the cues. In order to be seen as possessing leadership skills, they do what they have to, in order to get ahead. They realize what the game is, and they play it brilliantly.

One of the major symptoms of a place with this culture is that people who have something valuable to say have two options. They either keep quiet because they don’t get a chance, or they try to get their two cents in, by resorting to being rude. They interrupt others while they’re still speaking.

When people have nothing concrete to say, they tend to ramble on, so others would think they’re contributing. As a result of trying to make sense even to themselves, they just keep on talking. The result is that those who have real contributions have to find a way to say something. They have to interject. And that starts a vicious cycle of people not listening to another. There’s jockeying back and forth as one tries to get the floor over the other.

The sad part is that sometimes, those with valuable contributions do not really get a chance. Someone with a very good idea may choose to keep quiet instead of engaging in this battle to speak. While this shouldn't be a deterrent for any one, a good meeting facilitator should ensure that everyone in a meeting is given an opportunity to speak if they so desire.

A meeting where what I've described above happens, will be deemed unproductive or inefficient. What’s the impact of this to organizations? In his article, The Expense of Ineffective Meetings, Jeffrey Klubeck noted that “inefficient meetings cost organizations billions of dollars each year”. According to him, research indicates that over 50 percent of meeting time is wasted.

Patrick Lencioni, the author of Death by Meeting, stated matter-of-factly that bad meetings are a reflection of bad leaders. A good leader will quickly recognize when a meeting is becoming unproductive and speedily bring it back on the right course.

An ineffective leader will engender ineffective meetings. A good one will foster an environment of trust where all the parties in a meeting can freely speak up or be silent if they choose, without any fear of negative consequences.