Speaking up

Careers  Communication
15 May, 2017

Stop playing it safe! How to make yourself heard in the right way

Recently, one of our team members came by to express concerns about a barrage of verbal onslaught he was receiving from one of our leaders. After a lot of angst, he mustered up the courage to bring it up. While on the surface his working relationship with this colleague seemed okay, he was increasingly feeling uncomfortable with the way he was being treated. However, he felt very hesitant to raise this as he thought it would affect his ability to work effectively with this leader.

It’s tough knowing when to speak up: say too little and you risk being trampled over, say too much and you end up being perceived as causing trouble. Most people err on the side of silence, in the belief that it is better to play it safe—especially when it comes to the workplace, where the wrong thing said to the wrong person can prove costly.

However, silence has its own cost. If you don’t speak up for yourself in certain situations, it can derail your learning and career growth. Constantly bottling up your opinions keeps you from being your authentic self, which can lead to loss of self-confidence and fulfilment.

Moreover, not having differing viewpoints is bad for any organisation. Without a diversity of voices, a team would simply be indulging in group-think at its worst.

For the best ideas to emerge, we must be willing to challenge plans and processes—only if they pass the test of questioning and debate, are they worthy of implementation. As leaders, we need to model this skill, both by speaking up for ourselves as well as being willing to hear out those whose views diverge from our own.

So, drawing from this, my message this week is on how to speak up for yourself more effectively.

In her Harvard Business Review article, Three Times You Have to Speak Up, Nilofer Merchant identifies key situations in which you should make your voice heard:

  • When it will improve the results of the group.Minority viewpoints lead to better decision-making, by enabling the group to think more creatively and come up with better solutions.
  • When it gives others permission to speak their truth.Even a single voice of dissent empowers other people, giving them the courage to put forth their own authentic views—instead of simply going along with the majority.
  • When the costs of silence are too high.As Merchant points out, this is a very personal decision. You must ask yourself if it is worth it to speak up—whether it is an issue of justice, integrity, or personal/organisational success. If the answer is yes, it’s time to air your views, no matter how uncomfortable this may be.

Even if you know when you should speak out, it can be difficult to put this into practice. A fear of standing out from the crowd or sparking conflict could hold you back. With someone who has more authority than you, you remain silent because the person could react negatively—which might lead to unpleasant repercussions for you.

Here are five suggestions on how you can go about making yourself heard in the right way:

1. Advocate for others

Most of us find it easier to stand up for someone else, rather than for ourselves. Think about it. I’m sure there are instances where you have seen this happen, or where you have done so yourself.  So, sometimes, the best way to get heard is not to advocate for yourself—but for others. By doing so, you gain confidence and power in your own eyes as well as in other people’s estimation. As you learn to be more assertive in the interest of others, you can start applying this newly-discovered skill to fight your own battles as well.

2. Aim for a win-win

When you speak up, you are mostly focused on your own needs—which is a natural human tendency. However, you are much more likely to get what you’re asking for if you take into account the listener’s perspective as well. Is there a way in which you can combine what you want with what the other person wants? Creating a win-win outcome also allows you to assert yourself without being seen as a selfish jerk.

3. Cultivate allies

Being a lone voice of dissent can be uncomfortable, so why not try to form alliances around an issue you feel strongly about? It’s much better than going behind people’s backs to score brownie points. Knowing you have people on your side makes it far easier to speak out. One way to do this is by advocating for others, which earns you strong support among your peers, making them more likely to back you up. You can also actively seek out those who share your beliefs and build a collective voice. I’m sure you have come across examples of this in your career: when a team wants to raise an issue with their manager, for instance, they often do so in a group in order to make a stronger case and minimise resistance from the leadership. Speaking as “we” instead of “I” is powerful.

You can also create support by requesting for advice on the issue at hand. When you ask someone for input, they in turn become more open to hearing you out and committing to your cause. Soliciting advice is an indication of personal humility as well as a confirmation of the fact that you value the other person’s opinion—both these factors go a long way towards cultivating allies.

4. Use facts and logic

Doing your homework is key—even more so when you are voicing a minority view among people who are more senior and experienced than you. As social psychologist Adam Galinsky explains in this video (https://www.ted.com/talks/adam_galinsky_how_to_speak_up_for_yourself), when you already have a lot of authority, having good evidence may be enough; but when you lack power, you need excellent evidence. This is what gives you credibility and sets you apart from the nit-pickers and the naysayers. If you believe a process is ineffective, have the data to back up your argument. If you think a trend is worthy of your manager’s notice, do the research to convince them. If you find a better opportunity than the one being pursued by your team, have the details at hand before bringing it up. Few things are worse than gathering the courage to speak up, only to have your view dismantled and rejected due to lack of evidence.

5. Pick your battles

When it comes to credibility, passion goes hand in hand with expertise—people are more likely to pay attention when you genuinely feel strongly about an issue. This is where the value of silence comes in. If you speak up on any and every thing, then people will stop listening to your input. Instead, focus on what really matters to you. Your voice becomes far more powerful and valuable when it is reserved for issues about which you are passionate. Choosing when to speak up, therefore, is as important as deciding how to speak up.

As leaders, too, we need to think harder about how we can build and foster a culture of speaking up. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Start the debate – In her Harvard Business Review article, Three Times You Have to Speak Up, Rebecca Knight highlights the needs for managers to actively embrace ‘constructive conflict’, rather than waiting for their team members to speak up. She suggests opting for structured debates, which can force multiple perspectives to be shared openly.
  2. Understand what is holding people back – Figure out what exactly what is keeping people from speaking up. Is it the fear of retribution? Is it that they think they will be unpopular? Do they just not see the need to participate in decisions? Do they think their opinions won’t make a difference? Talk to people individually perhaps to understand these concerns better. Then, address the issues head on.
  3. Acknowledge people who speak up – Show that you’re championing a more open culture by calling out people who have spoken up and made a difference. Make examples of them, so that others will be encouraged to do the same.
  4. Walk the talk – If you’re not ready to hear out ideas and suggestions different from your own, your team won’t speak up. It shows in the speaking time you allow other people in meetings, how much you seek out group feedback and opinion, the way you encourage co-creation, how you encourage dissent, whether or not you’re willing to make changes to your plans. And you need to speak out yourself. People will take their cues from all of this.

In the end, speaking up effectively is a balancing act. It calls for you to be strong yet humble, careful yet courageous, ambitious yet unselfish.

So, the next time something gets you worked up, ask yourself: is it worth speaking up in this situation? If the answer is yes, consider how you could use some of these suggestions to make your opinion count.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


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