As I reflect on the personal leadership challenges I have observed in myself and other leaders, I’ve realized that “no” is a hard word for many managers to say.

Saying yes as a manager is easy. You, as a manager, want to say yes. You want to be liked. You want to walk alongside the employees you supervise and be there for them. You think, “We are a team, after all, and a team gets along!” The words you say every day — sure, OK, you bet — they’re all versions of “yes.”

A different version of “yes” is your silent consent. Silent consent is when a behavior occurs and you let it continue without comment, even if the behavior is something that makes you uncomfortable. This is where a new manager, a manager who wants to be liked, or a manager who is not particularly good at conflict is going to struggle. This is where your silence is the same as an audible yes. Silent consent is dangerous; it can ultimately lead to your demise as a leader and the destruction of your team.

As a leader, your job is to create a high-performing team. A healthy high-performing team. And to create that, conflict is inevitable. Healthy can mean a lot of things, but in this instance, it means that, as managers, we have honest conversations that include the word “no.” It means that we cut out the silent consent toward behavior that’s hurting the team.

A few years ago, I realized I wasn’t the best leader when it came to saying no and that I was guilty of silent consent in my managing style. I needed help as a leader, and I was not alone — the people I worked alongside needed help, too.

I found some extraordinary support through an organization called Fierce Inc., which provided a framework for having hard conversations. With Fierce, I learned how to say no in a healthy way and eliminate silent consent when confrontation is the better option. I highly recommend the organization and its book, “Fierce Conversations,” as a resource for leadership development.

There were two exercises I did with Fierce that really parted the clouds for me and helped me begin to recognize and eliminate silent consent from my leadership.



Decades ago, I had an extremely dysfunctional board of directors. There was animosity among the members of the board. Silent consent was everywhere, and the very behaviors that were not addressed were then bitterly complained about when the board meeting was over and the offender was no longer around. It was a miserable group of people, and it was a miserable existence for me as the leader of the organization. The situation finally became intolerable (though it should be noted that I tolerated it for far too long before I acted).

I hired a consultant to help me work through the differences between the board members. He introduced a term I never forgot: dead, stinky cats. He defined dead, stinky cats as the ongoing animosities or disagreements that are never discussed but linger and stink up the room like a dead, stinky cat under the board table. What an apt description.

With Fierce, I wrote down a list of the dead, stinky cats in my business. You’d think my earlier board experience would have reminded me to never let these kinds of issues linger in my workplace. It didn’t. I am not that smart.

My list of dead, stinky cats was not long, but it was made up of the few issues that always caused organizational anxiety and destroyed morale. These were the issues that had my silent consent. With these issues in mind, I then walked through an exercise consisting of four questions. While answering these questions, I found the courage to address the dead, stinky cats in my business.



1. Other than being clear and direct, what are some of the strategies we use in an attempt to change someone’s behavior?
This question was a beauty. All kinds of unhealthy answers came to mind. When attempting to change the behaviors of others, we may use sarcasm, passive-aggressive tactics, and the silent treatment. We also might complain to team members without talking to the person whose behavior is the issue. Looking at all these strategies, I felt foolish. What a weak leader I was.

2. How do you justify not having the conversation? What are your fears?
Most of my answers to this question were ridiculous and assumed only the most extreme response from an employee. My reptilian brain (fight, flight, or freeze) was preventing me from having healthy conversations. Just writing down my fears made me realize how unlikely they were to occur.

3. What are the prices we pay (the costs) for not having the conversation?
Here is where things got real. There were real costs in hard dollars and culture destruction that were occurring in my business because of my silent consent. People’s professional lives were affected. It hurt to consider what price the organization was paying for my silent consent.

4. What is at stake to gain if we have the hard conversation and it goes well?
Here is where I realized the benefits of having the hard conversations. I made a glorious, impressive list of potential positive outcomes. These outcomes were what I wanted. I wanted them more than I wanted the safety and lack of open conflict my silent consent had created. This list moved me to act and have those hard conversations.

The longer I am in business, the more I realize that everything comes down to leadership. A growing leader at the top of a business that is developing a healthy leadership team is what creates sustainable results. It all comes down to leadership.

I encourage you to consider writing down the dead, stinky cats in your business that have enjoyed your silent consent. Then, walk yourself through the four questions.

Saying yes when you shouldn’t, along with silent consent, are two of the biggest factors that can bring about a leader’s downfall. Having the courage to say no in a healthy, respectful way is the first step toward creating a thoroughly healthy organization.

Publication date: 7/1/2019

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