‘Make it unsafe to be silent’: expert says on organizational innovation, problem solving

Art Fuentes, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 17 2021 12:04 PM

Adam Grant. Photo from www.adamgrant.net
Adam Grant. Photo from www.adamgrant.net

MANILA - There is a cost to silence, and organizations need to give incentives to their people to speak up about the problems or opportunities they see that may affect the group, an international expert said on Tuesday. 

Organizations need to go beyond allowing people to speak their mind about issues within the team, renowned organizational psychologist and author Adam Grant said during the Digicon Pop 2021.

Companies and other organizations should also make it ‘unsafe’ for team members to stay silent about the problems they see, Grant told participants in Digicon, which was organized by the Internet and Mobile Marketing Association of the Philippines (IMMAP).

“I do think that making it unsafe to be silent is a good alternative to making it safe to speak up. Because that leaves people to think about the costs of silence, not just the benefits of voicing,” Grant said during the session sponsored by Manulife. 

Grant cited the example of Elon Musk’s SpaceX. During an interview with the billionaire, Musk said he needed to create a culture where people are incentivized to point out problems and mistakes before one of their rockets explodes. 

“If I found out later that they saw a potential problem and they didn’t let me know, they’re gonna be in huge trouble,” Grant recalled Musk telling him. 

Organizations can put in place structures to make people see that they get rewarded if they bring an idea or even an important problem, Grant said. 

One exercise that organizations can do is to have team members think of ways to “kill the company,” he said. This way they can identify the company’s vulnerabilities.

“When it’s your job to kill the company, there is no problem that you cant voice. You can even say the emperor has no clothes,” he said.

But besides identifying vulnerabilities, the “kill the company” exercise can also point to new businesses.

“People realize that some of these are threats, others are opportunities.”

Being too comfortable in the status quo also has its dangers, Grant said citing Blackberry as an example. 

He said that Blackberry used to own the smartphone market and was sitting on a cash pile of $70 billion, but limited itself to making just one product. When the iPhone came out, Blackberry’s market share of the smartphone market was reduced to almost zero, he said. 

As the Philippines moves nearer to elections season that promises to be very divisive, Grant advises that people who want to convince others of their political views do “motivational interviewing.” 

This means asking people what kind of evidence would convince them to change their point of view. 

“It forces you to recognize: I can’t bully someone into changing their minds, I can only help them find their own reasons for changing and then see if they want to pursue it.” 

Grant is the author of the New York Times bestseller "Think Again" where he argues that while intelligence is usually seen as the ability to think and learn, the ability to rethink and unlearn might matter more in a rapidly changing world.

He has also done several TED Talks, the most recent of which was posted on YouTube 2 weeks ago where he discusses "How to stop languishing and start finding flow" amid the ongoing pandemic. 

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