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Keeping Your Mouth Shut at Work

written by: Olivia Emisar•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 6/20/2011

Sitcoms and movies have a tendency to build dialog and scenarios around the various personalities that inhabit work cubicles, but practicing impulse control in the workplace is not relegated to white collar jobs. Knowing when and how to speak up applies to all work fields.

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    Does Your Brain Have a Filter?

    Not every thought that pops into our heads is a candidate for immediate verbalization. The most successful managers and employees are able to keep their emotions in check and their most controversial thoughts to themselves. Those without a filter between their brains and their mouths are rarely seen in a positive light unless the work environment is so dysfunctional and oppressive that those afraid to speak up secretly applaud the loud mouth verbalizing their concerns. However, without demonstrative support and co-worker backup, the loud mouth is the one likely to be viewed as a pariah and will pay the consequences of unfounded rumors or spreading the seeds for a hostile work environment.

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    Sound Off!

    Conversations There are times when speaking up is unavoidable in order to survive in the workplace. However, there are many ways of conveying the same message and how the message is conveyed will determine its success and problem resolution. In many cases, issuing statements in anger and using the wrong words, will not only focus the attention away from the problem needing solving but create additional ones that can result in termination of employment.

    Sound off the right way:

    • Practice speaking calmly about the one issue, not many. Compounding issues solves nothing.
    • Leave feelings and emotions behind if the problem is about project snags or timelines.
    • Do not play the blame game. Vilifying a team member does not resolve the problem.
    • Follow the chain of command.
    • Be professional, not personal.

    Sound off the wrong way:

    • Express anger and frustration loudly.
    • Call people names.
    • Go over your supervisor's head.
    • Incite turmoil.
    • Expect people to feel the way you do and demand they take sides.
    • Using co-workers to spread gossip.

    The right way elicits corrective actions and cooperation, while the wrong way creates unnecessary drama, an unpleasant work environment, compounds problems and solves absolutely nothing.

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    Codes of Behavior

    Every employee expects to be treated with respect and every employer has in place guidelines of behavior, a chain of command and conflict-resolution procedures. Employees need to follow these steps professionally and sequentially in order to solve issues not readily noticeable or apparent to upper management.

    Management does not intentionally want to make employees miserable, it is a counter-productive tactic that lowers productivity and takes away profits from the bottom line. Everyone in management is vested in making the workday as glitch-free as possible and wants problems to be resolved quickly. The most appreciated team members are not those who remain silent, but those who know when to speak up and do so in a proactive and professional manner.

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    Impulse control is important in all aspects of life, without it, we would be a lawless society. We all have the unexpected results of frustration on our daily commute when someone cuts us off on the freeway and hand gestures ensue. Even the most saintly among us has said words in front of children they wish had not come tumbling out of their mouths in a rush of emotional release. Working 

    When it comes to the workplace, we need to remember that we are there to work, not socialize and the work environment is a lot less forgiving than the stranger speeding away or the family member eager to forgive anything we say or do.

    A good rule of thumb: Remember that there is a huge difference between venting feelings and emotions and communicating solutions to problems.

    We have all had co-workers who don't know the difference between the two and they have either found themselves on their way out the door, or remained stagnant in their positions for years on end. How we communicate and what we communicate has repercussions.

    Working against us:

    • Too much personal information.
    • Gossip about co-workers and higher-ups in casual conversations.
    • Sarcasm.
    • Personal attacks.
    • Vilifying others.
    • Political and religious demagoguery.
    • Off-color jokes and talk.
    • Prejudices showing.
    • Using the workplace as our social playground.

    Working in our favor:

    • Clearly stating problems with thoughtful solutions.
    • Social interactions that are neutral and PG.
    • Not assuming others share our values and beliefs or that theirs are wrong.
    • Venting at home or with friends that are NOT employed by the same company.
    • Keeping personal and professional lives separate to avoid conflicting conversations.
    • Do not react to key words, practice a few seconds of silence before responding.

    Freedom of speech does not demand we speak our minds on every possible subject at any time. Doing so in the workplace can be costly in terms of current positions or future growth with the company.

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    Practice Impulse Control

    Simply stated, being professional means having class and no one is born with class or professional skills, they are developed through training, example and experience. Everyone needs to reinforce the brain-to-mouth filter instilled in childhood and incorporate and adapt it to the work place.

    • Follow someone's lead that is respected in the company and emulate their behavior.
    • Take a manner's course or enroll in a workplace seminar.
    • Practice taking a step back between actions and words. A few thoughtful seconds can save a reputation.

    Most of us have a tendency to incorporate coworkers into our personal lives and there is nothing wrong with that as long as we keep in mind that some conversations and topics of discussion among colleagues are best avoided.

    • Keep in mind that something vented over drinks on Friday night can damage a career Monday morning.

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    Internal Dialog

    Before talking to others, consider having an internal dialog to double-check intended discussions or comments. This is the lowest cost approach to behavior modification:

    • Does this comment add value to the conversation?
    • Is it an appropriate discussion at a place of employment? Or is it best suited with my best friend/spouse?
    • Will these comments or conversations harm my standing and career?
    • Am I driven to preach religion, politics, morality in every interaction? Is that appropriate in every setting?
    • Do coworkers respect me or ridicule me? Do they roll their eyes? Do they want to hear more or make excuses to terminate the conversation?
    • Am I able to define boundaries between personal and business conduct?

    Low level employees are not the only ones that need to take regular assessments, many high-level employees have a reputation for getting away with behavior and talk that is tolerated only because of the position they hold – and many have found themselves named in lawsuits claiming discrimination, sexual harrassment and creating a hostile work environment.

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    ERA: Sexual Harassment at Work

    The U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission: Facts About Sexual Harassment

    Photos: Conversation; Salvatore Vuono Working: Photostock