H O L D I N G   B A C K !


This can take several forms including: 

  • Not saying what you are thinking
  • Not sharing how you are feeling
  • Not disclosing what’s got you concerned or upset
  • Not raising the elephants that need to be raised
  • Putting up with frustration in a conversation, without intervening to make it more constructive
  • Keeping quiet when you have an opinion on something important
  • Keeping quiet when you feel passionate about a topic  
  • Staying silent when you think you might be the only one with a different view 
  • Being afraid to ask the provocative questions 
  • Assuming you are the only one who’s confused or unsure as to what’s going on in a conversation 
  • Spinning your message and/or sugar coating it rather than being direct 
  • Not saying anything when peers don’t follow through on their commitments
  • Not challenging your peers and/or your leader 
  • etc… 

 What are the costs of holding back? 

 The costs of holding back have an impact on four critical aspects: Self, Relationships, Speed, and Cost. 

 More Specifically: 

  • Self: You feel a level of frustration and/or resentment e.g. not feeling heard or understood, becoming disengaged in conversations, feeling unfulfilled etc…
  • Relationships: It gets in the way of building deeper relationships i.e. judging others without verifying assumptions/facts, withdrawing from conversations etc…
  • Speed: It takes longer to get things done e.g. real issues don’t get tabled, the wrong issues get addressed, your resistance comes out in covert ways, important issues go unresolved etc…
  • Cost: It costs more, not just financially, but also emotionally e.g. lots of waste generated, diverse ideas are not put forward, actions become half-hearted, your level of buy-in to a solution is not strong etc…

 Often, the consequences of holding back impact more than one of the above critical aspects. 

Why do we hold back? 

At a surface level, the key reasons can be grouped under two categories: Emotional Safety and Intellectual Rationalisation:   

Emotional Safety

  • I don’t feel safe to share my true feelings 
  • I don’t trust that what I say will be heard in the spirit that is intended  
  • I may be judged unfairly 
  • It might come back to bite me 
  • They may think of me as incompetent and/or ignorant and/or stupid 
  • If I say something, it may be used against me 
  • The last time I raised a controversial subject, I was shot down
  • etc… 

Intellectual Rationalisation  

  • By sharing my thoughts, I might slow things down 
  • By expressing my views, I might take the discussion off on a tangent
  • I’m not sure if what I’m thinking or feeling will have any impact 
  • I’m not sure if what I have to say/share is all that relevant
  • It’s probably only me who’s feeling this way 
  • I’m not sure if expressing my point of view is going to change anything 
  • etc…

However at the deepest level, emotional safety and intellectual rationalisation are means of SELF PRESERVATION! Or, in other words, avoiding difficulty in order to feel safe and/or feel in control and/or avoid imagined or real consequences. 

When to speak up more?

It was Martin Luther King who said that “Our lives begin to end that day we become silent about things that matter”

You may be thinking that “Rajeev, am I meant to be raising every single issue that comes to mind, when it comes to mind, irrespective of the situation?” The answer to that is no! I’m not predicating that you say everything that comes to your mind and what you have to say will necessarily have the impact you desire and/or meet your expectations.  

What I’m proposing is that you MUST speak up about things that: 

  • Matter to you
  • Are important to the benefit of the team 
  • Are critical to improving relationships 
  • Will make a difference in making progress on important business content  
  • Are about a bigger cause 

How do you get better at speaking up, even when it’s hard?

I suggest the following 3-step “system”: 

1. Find a deeper ‘Why’ 

To overcome the feeling of self preservation, you need to find a deeper why: Why is it important to say something rather than keeping quiet? To enable this, you need to place a greater value on saying something than worrying about the imagined negative consequences.  

2. As Nike would say, Just do it… 

To act, do the following 3 steps: 

a) Get into a courageous emotional state

b) Look for an opportunity to get the team’s attention

c) When you have the team’s attention, try and make an impact by making your point concisely and succinctly, whilst at the same time staying curious enough to appreciate and learn from different perspectives.  

3. Don’t get attached to the outcome 

If what you say doesn’t get the attention of the group and/or meet your expectations of the desired outcomes, do not take this personally. At the same time though, do not make the group wrong either i.e. thinking along the lines of They just ignored me…again 

Instead, I would urge you to consider any response (or lack thereof) simply as feedback or a datapoint. And in this situation, choose a meaning that invokes more curiosity, flexibility and learning as to what to do next.  

A meaning you could choose to give in this situation might be along the lines of: 

  • “Maybe I didn’t articulate it in a clear and/or compelling manner”
  • “Perhaps it was the wrong time”
  • “Maybe this issue isn’t as important to others as it is to me”
  • “Others possibly see it/feel it differently to how I do”
  • “XYZ approach didn’t work, so I should try a different approach next time”
  • etc… 

If it’s important enough, be persistent and keep experimenting with different approaches! But take into account people’s feedback and your own self-reflection as to how to get your message across and/or when to let it go.