Best Practices

Why You Should Start Speaking Up at Work ASAP

Max 8 min read

Why You Should Start Speaking Up at Work ASAP

Why You Should Start Speaking Up at Work ASAP

Most of us have found ourselves in this odd situation where we strongly disagree with a colleague’s statement, but when it comes to speaking up—we just sit there. Giving your honest opinion and defending your boundaries at work isn’t exactly an easy thing to do.

Many people don’t like being in the spotlight of disagreement, yet all of us have to learn this skill to grow as a professional. The way you choose to communicate in the workplace is indicative of how your coworkers perceive you as an individual, colleague, manager, or leader.

Yet the lack of transparent communication isn’t necessarily the employees’ fault. Very often, a company’s corporate culture simply doesn’t provide for an environment where open communication is encouraged.

In this blog post, we’ll take a look at the reasons all of us should learn to speak up at work and why organizations should encourage their employees to speak freely.

Let’s dive right in, shall we?

The value of speaking up at work

The value of speaking up at work

Often, people think of speaking up as a high-risk, low-reward effort—you’re either right, and you get a pat on the back, or you’re wrong, and you end up looking like a fool. While many of us may feel this way, this is very far from true. Let’s take a look at why.

1. Wrong ideas are valuable, too

Speaking up is about delivering honest feedback about other people’s decisions or opinions, whether you’re pointing out an injustice that someone has committed or pointing out a perspective that someone may have missed.

Unfortunately, we’ve somehow been conditioned to think that being wrong is bad. Yes, often bad decisions can lead us to undesired outcomes, but there’s no such thing as a “bad idea”. Great businesses and products are built on effective ideation and an open mind. The key here is speaking up in a constructive manner.

Merely voicing your opinion can bring your team to a valuable and elegant solution to a pressing issue. Think of it this way: you’re a person that has been in a particular position or has been working in a specific industry for quite some time—you’re qualified to have an informed opinion.

Sometimes, it’s a good idea to take some more time before you communicate disagreement or criticism if you’re not entirely sure that you’re right. It’s also really important to carefully assess the situation and think things through. At the end of the day, you don’t want to be seen as a “loose cannon”.

2. It helps you grow

Actively participating in conversations and providing your team with constructive criticism creates a wide array of opportunities that we don’t anticipate. By showcasing your understanding of the industry, you create an image for yourself. Some of your valuable opinions can be shared with higher management, opening you up for growth and a new set of responsibilities.

3. Your opinion matters

Silence is consent. Often, undesirable or unjust things happen at work. You’re asked to come in on a Saturday without extra pay, upper management introduces a draconian new quota, your team leader makes a shortsighted decision that impacts your entire department—whatever it is, being silent just doesn’t make sense. If you don’t speak up, probably no one will.

Of course, it’s prudent to follow your workplace’s rules and protocols, but that does not mean that you have to actually agree with them.

If you disapprove of someone’s decision that influences you or the wellbeing of your colleagues—provide them with constructive criticism. Not saying anything, in this case, comes with a price as well. You might eventually start treating your job with resentment, and you’ll just end up bottling your emotions up, leading to professional dissatisfaction. Not speaking up can seriously harm our sense of self-worth. This can lead us to engaging in weird mental gymnastics to justify staying silent, which will slowly and methodically hinder our personal and professional growth.

Why don’t people speak up at work

Why don’t people speak up at work?

In 2018, the Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) published a report named “Ethics at Work” that explores the state of ethics in the modern workplace. The report features a section dedicated exclusively to speaking up (page 41). In it, IBE provides the most common reasons people choose not to speak up at work. Here they are:

  • “I did not believe corrective action would be taken” — 28%
  • “I felt like it could jeopardize my job“ — 27%
  • “I felt it was none of my business” — 23%
  • “I didn’t want to be seen as a troublemaker” — 20%
  • “I felt I might alienate myself from colleagues” — 18%
  • “I thought they already knew about it” — 14%
  • “I didn’t think it was a serious issue at the time” — 12%
  • “I did not know who to contact” —7%
  • “I thought it was common practice” — 7%
  • “I thought it would be raised by someone else” — 5%

Obviously, people are worried about the potential repercussions that speaking up may bring upon them. But should they?

The same report continues to provide data on employee satisfaction with the outcome of their raising an issue. On average, 51% of people were either very or fairly satisfied with the action taken by superiors or peers after they’ve communicated their concerns.

While 51% is nowhere near 100%, these are very, very good odds.

How do I start speaking up at work

How do I start speaking up at work?

Becoming more open and forthcoming with your colleagues isn’t easy, but it’s definitely something you can do, especially if your approach is right.

1. Start by overcoming your fears

Before you start changing your behavior, it’s important to understand the reasons you have to change in the first place.

Breaking the silence and disagreeing with someone’s opinion isn’t easy—and it’s totally fine to feel this way. Most of us do. Think of it this way: you’re put in a situation where you have to choose between behaving in an agreeable manner or standing up against something that you consider to be incorrect or unjust.

Humans are social animals; the mere thought of challenging the status quo in our environment feels dangerous.

Furthermore, for many of us, this fear is aggravated by past experiences and social conditioning, making the need to fit in even stronger. Here are a few common reasons:

  • Childhood trauma—many of us have experienced ridicule or abuse for speaking up. We might not realize it at first, but these events end up influencing our personalities more than we anticipate. As a result, when we’re in situations where we need to speak up, our brains are overwhelmed by a sense of danger, preventing us from taking action.
  • Trauma during adulthood—unfortunately, we’re not immune to traumatizing events as adults. While grown-ups are typically more polite and mindful of others’ feelings, that doesn’t mean that we won’t ever be laughed at for being wrong. When this does happen, people will generally prefer to avoid potentially traumatizing experiences, even when confronted with blatant injustice.
  • Gender inequality—it’s no secret that many cultures around the world tend to shame women for speaking up. These societal expectations are still very relevant in the West, and there’s lots of evidence to back this claim up.
  • Fear of retaliation—disagreeing with your company decision-maker may result in financial or status-related repercussions. Criticizing the decisions of a narcissistic and fragile manager can be very unsettling, which is why many people choose to comply with their decisions.

2. Assess the situation

As we mentioned previously, there’s always risk and reward associated with speaking up. We don’t want to expose ourselves to too much risk to gain nothing of substance. Let’s explore a few situations when you should definitely consider communicating your honest opinion about things:

  • When you witness injustice—it’s important to be mindful of the fact that there are lots of people who aren’t equipped to speak up. Whenever you see someone being treated poorly, raise the issue and bring it to everyone’s attention.
  • When rules are broken—as an employee, you’re entitled to certain rights in the workplace, and sometimes they happen to be broken. Such situations need to be addressed immediately. Letting someone disobey corporate policies runs the risk of normalizing this kind of behavior.
  • When everyone’s silent—often, people will disagree with a manager’s decision, but only in private. When nobody can muster enough courage to speak up against an unjust decision, it’s a good call to be the one who communicates the collective disapproval.
  • When someone’s being punched down—if you occupy a managerial position or you happen to benefit from racial or social privilege, it’s important to stand up for those who don’t.
  • When your heart tells you to—when it comes to speaking up, it’s essential to do what you think is right. If you’ve carefully assessed the risks, you’re equipped to make the right decision. Not following your gut can often leave you ruminating for weeks and months on end.

Plan your approach

3. Plan your approach

While the things that make us want to speak up might trigger a powerful emotional response in us, it’s important to pause and think of how you’ll raise the concern.

Start by making a commitment. Assess whether what you want to say should be said. Then, think of how you should approach them and choose your words carefully.

The conversation you’re about to have is supposed to reinstate the boundaries that have been violated. Although you probably feel wronged, it’s important to be mindful of the fact that you have the power to upset the people you’ll be communicating with. While it may seem like something you want to do, or maybe even that they deserve it, speaking up is first and foremost about boundaries, not punitive justice. Therefore, it’s critical to think about what to say and how to say it so that the person involved changes their behavior, not feel resentment. Having a productive conversation is a priority.

Planning what you say is also very important because you might start overexplaining your point. Speaking up can sometimes stun people, which makes them go silent for a while. Make sure you don’t start filling the silence. Be brief, punchy and fair. That will help you get the point across.

Your job is not done just yet

4. Your job is not done just yet

You’ve done the hardest part, but it’s not over yet. It’s time to gracefully ride the consequences of your speaking up. Yes, it’s important to be prepared for them. Speaking the truth isn’t easy, neither for the person saying it nor the person having to hear it.

Also, bear in mind that you may go through a brief period of vulnerability right after you’ve had a complicated conversation, especially if you did it in front of other people. Stepping out of your comfort zone can come with a sense of discomfort and doubt. Don’t worry, you did great. You stood up for what is right.

Always consider seeing a personal coach or a therapist if you feel like the aftermath of the conversation has a significant toll on your wellbeing. The path to growth has never been easy—and that’s totally fine. Embrace it. While it may seem too complicated at times, it’s always worth the effort.

The bottom line

Speaking up can be nerve-wracking, but the outcome is well worth the effort in most cases. If speaking up is a new thing for you, take some time to practice until you’re ready to dip your toes in the water.

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