Speaking up at work is so important! If you and others don’t speak up, then you’re not providing the value that your company or your customers are paying you for. Even more importantly, bad things happen when people don’t speak up. Shoddy work gets done. Mistakes go uncorrected. Hazards unnoticed.
But speaking up isn’t always easy. It usually breeds some level of conflict that can cause discomfort—even if just in the short term. And if you don’t do it right, you could end up creating enemies or losing business. So you need to speak up, but you need to do it mindfully and at the right time.
Sometimes speaking up can put your career or your very livelihood at risk. I remember a time when I was working for a company that had been laying people off left and right, and there was this general feeling in the air of, “Just don’t stand out, and you won’t get on the list for the next round of layoffs.” And that’s what people did: they didn’t speak up so they wouldn’t be seen as rocking the boat. And as you’d expect, employee satisfaction and engagement ratings were at an all-time low.
While you certainly need to take care to maintain your livelihood, I’d argue that most of us resist speaking up, not because of a realistic danger of losing our jobs but because we’re afraid that we’ll do it wrong and that we’ll end up making things worse rather than better. So if you find yourself in the pretty common dilemma of “Should I speak up, or should I just let this go?” consider the three tips below in navigating your decision.
Tip #1: Consider the importance of what you’re bringing up
Are you considering speaking up about something that’s critical to the organization’s mission? Does it involve physical safety? Is the survival of your organization at stake? If you answered “yes” to questions like these, then you need to find a way to speak up because you’re talking about important stuff.
Conversely, if you’re considering speaking up about something that, while irksome, doesn’t fall in the category of “important,” consider letting it go. As they say: Don’t sweat the small stuff.
The difficult decisions about speaking up often lie in that gray area where the situation is important but not urgent. Where while it may not rise to the level of “critical” at this point, the situation is eroding at some important foundation (e.g., communication, trust, goodwill, ethics, etc.) that will cause it to become critical in the future. Situations like these can represent tough calls, but with the right coaching and strategizing, you can speak up and address the problem effectively.
Tip #2: Be the provider of solutions
When you’re speaking up about something important, you want people to listen. And people listen when you’ve earned their respect. But how do you do that? A couple of ways:
First, don’t be the person that speaks up every time or about everything. If you’re that person, eventually people will stop listening because they don’t think that you’re speaking up to help as much as to vent or hear yourself speak. Or worse, people could start seeing your speaking up as an annoyance.
Second, be the person who speaks up to move the group toward a solution. Don’t just bring a problem to light—propose a solution! And it doesn’t need to be fully fleshed out either. Consider this hypothetical instance of speaking up:
“I’d like to say something. I’ve noticed that the solutions we come up with as a team generally seem to come from the same 2 or 3 people. And I’d propose that it’s not because only 2 or 3 people have good ideas but because we may not be drawing out ideas from everyone [the problem]. I was thinking, [the solution] if you all agree that we have room to come up with even better ideas as a team, that we could come up with a system during our ideation phase to make sure that we get ideas from the entire team. What do you think?”
Tip #3: Test your ideas before you speak up
Sometimes speaking up can be politically risky, as in my experience with the company that was laying people off. You can choose not to speak up to keep from drawing negative attention to yourself, but you’re also not drawing any positive attention or solving any problems by not speaking up. The key is to bring value to the table when you speak up, and to make sure your message lands as you intend it.
One way to maximize the value you bring and mitigate political risk is to run your ideas by peers and mentors you trust. Identify people in your organization, your industry, or your personal “board of directors” who will give you honest feedback about what you’re planning to speak up about. Ask them to tell you how you’re coming off. Do you sound like you’re complaining? Proactive? Reasonable? Like you care about the success of the organization or just about yourself? If you get the right feedback, you’ll be able to fine tune what you speak up about and make it land the way you intend.
Speaking up at work isn’t easy. It takes courage to get past the discomfort we often feel around speaking up, and it takes skill to make sure you’re speaking up in a way that’s effective. I encourage you to think about where in your work or your business you could be speaking up more to bring more value to your organization or your clients. And if you feel it’s unsafe to speak up, just make sure there’s real danger there, and that it’s not just in your head.
Get some help if you need it, but please go forth and speak up!
Guillermo Villar is principal coach with Cambio Coaching. He helps high-achieving individuals and teams communicate with intention to get the business results they want.