The Courage to Speak Up At Work in Tenuous Times

If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. — Mothers everywhere

In the right key anything can be said. In the wrong key, nothing. The only delicate part is the establishment of the key. — George Bernard Shaw

To speak or not to speak? That is the question! Speaking up at work. Are you damned if you do and damned if you don’t?

Many employees are feeling a sense of higher risk for speaking up in this tenuous economic time and, yes, there are plenty who are going along now with ideas, policies, procedures and management demands, etc., that, in other times, would not. Currently there’s a palpable feeling of, “I’m just going to keep my nose to this here grindstone, be thankful that I have any job at all and hope like hell this all blows over sooner, rather than later!”

However, despite the seemingly heightened risk for piping up during these times (when one feels justified), there are occasions when one may at least consider speaking up.

If you find yourself at such crossroads, wondering, “Should I speak up, or shut up and put up???”, here are a few suggestions for making that decision:

1. Count to a metaphoric ten before saying anything to anyone (even a colleague):

Sometimes the in-the-moment, bursting need to speak up about an annoying workplace situation or issue is merely a presenting problem and not the real issue at all; the urge to speak up may merely be a trigger of the moment/of the stressful day, and you may discover that the annoyance or judgment felt on one day blows over by the next.

2. Plan some dedicated time to actively and quietly reflect on the question, “Is this the real issue that’s concerning me or is this merely the presenting issue?”:

If you feel compelled to speak up, make sure it’s about the correct concerns. Often times we’re really annoyed about things other than what we first identify or blame. Speak up and offer feedback, with a couple of suggested solutions at the ready, only once you’re convinced you’ve identified the real issue(s).

3. As objectively as possible, assess the truth about the relationship you enjoy with the person to whom you report:

Is that relationship honest, open and informal? Are you sincerely comfortable asking and telling that individual almost any work concern or issue that comes to mind, or, in all honesty, is that relationship more formal and guarded (even if it does have a sense of friendliness on its face)? If previous experience has taught you that you can successfully share well thought out, heart-in-the-right-place, positively pitched feedback or expressions of concern, then–despite the tenuous times–gently proceed.

4. Remind yourself of the bigger picture reasons you continue in this position:

If you decide that it’s best to say nothing…at least comfort and fortify yourself with the purity of your professional purpose as your reason for staying quiet and putting up.

5. Go for it and speak up if… :

…the overarching corporate culture is such that feedback is always welcome, despite trying times. If your local management’s philosophy is in kind, they will probably positively receive your feedback and recognize that if one person has dared to present this concern then, e.g. ten others may feel this way, too (but may merely be afraid to speak up). There’s always the good chance you’re performing an heroic act and helping not only yourself but others, as well, if you speak up in such a case. Remember the tragedy of NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia in February, 2003? The engineers appealed repeatedly to management to delay the mission yet again, due to questionable heat shields. They lost their appeal to management and disaster ensued. Although this isn’t a fine example of speaking up with success, these engineering professionals at least did speak up, when all the political machinery of the moment was dictating otherwise. And, as it turned out, they were right. Small consolation to the families of those seven that lost their lives but, for future reference, perhaps the engineers’ urgent voice will be respected and heeded. And perhaps, as well, the engineers learned a most valuable lesson on how to speak up even louder, longer and harder when personal and professional convictions and values urge.

6. Are these orders and management demands, that trigger your desire to speak up, violating your sense of self, self-respect, personal values and ethics?:

Are the pressures of such altering your sleep, appetite, relationships, physical and emotional health? If so, assess your choices, accordingly. Should you seek help from an EAP/Employee Assistance Program? A doctor? Will some good old philosophical advice to remember help, such as: “As long as the benefits outweigh the baloney, I’ll stay.” Or, “This too shall pass.” and, although a little melodramatic, “That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Sometimes even a little self-championing talk may help buoy you up during rough times, when you feel your professional voice is stifled and you don’t dare speak up.

7. Know the truth about your readiness and ability to speak up effectively:

Do you have the “right” disposition to articulately and effectively represent both yourself and others’ concerns? Are you good in a moment of potential challenge? Are you an extravert or introvert? Are you clearly an assertive personality type or do you tend to be aggressive or non-assertive? Knowing these truths about yourself–or figuring out how to discover them–are also important factors when deciding whether or not to put yourself on the line.

And remember, there’s always a high risk of losing one’s job, or being “hauled up on the carpet”, as the saying goes–in any economic climate–if one does not know how to effectively deliver feedback…if one decides to speak up anyway, and does so, poorly and ill prepared.

So, when it comes to delivering feedback most effectively and persuasively, consider these pointers excerpted from page 125 of my book, Getting Passion Out of Your Profession: How to keep loving your living…come what may:

1. Develop your introspective skills:

Ask yourself, “What are my motives for wanting to give this feedback?” Be sure there’s a real problem or issue that won’t go away if it’s not addressed. Could it be that you’re just in a bad mood that day? haven’t eaten properly/ had a poor night’s sleep? the irritating person reminds you of your sister-in-law?

2. Identify the real issue(s):

…not just the symptoms, presenting issue(s) or personalities; realize there’s often something beyond the issue that triggers the knee-jerk desire to give feedback.

3. Be prepared to work towards a mutually agreeable solution:

…rather than winning; think “solution-oriented” rather than “problem solving” (this is the old positive thinking and words versus negative focus coming to the fore once again — referred to indepth in Chapter One of, Getting Passion Out of Your Profession).

4. Remember that it’s alright to disagree:

The other person is not “bad” if he or she disagrees with you. And even if you don’t get the results you desire after speaking up, you will still have satisfaction and sense of personal integrity for having done so.

5. Keep your perspective:

…rather than destroying a professional relationship, choose to work towards a mutually satisfying solution to enhance that relationship over the long run.

And when it comes to working on an issue/deciding whether or not you should speak up in the first place, remember to:

1. Ask yourself whether you experience the issue as a preference or a value:

Be willing to let go of at least some preferences and, instead, reserve feedback for issues related to your values. Values are worth sticking up and fighting for, as they’re bone deep personal beliefs anchored in family or culture traditions with which you still actively, passionately and consciously agree. Preferences, on the other hand, usually muster up much less “fire in the belly”; you may prefer something to be this way or that, but you know that you can live with another way, if you must…if you don’t “get your own way” on a particular issue. If you must surrender a preference, you usually don’t loose much sleep over it, but you just might over a value. Preferences (at least some of them) could be surrendered…for the sake of maintaining ongoing professional relationships and for your own workplace sanity.

2. Look for classic “win-win” solutions:

Although, through the eyes of the cynic, looking for the “win-win” is just way too “new age-ie”, win-wins are out there…they do exist and often times can be achieved, if you care to work at it.

3. Empathize with the other’s perspective:

Put yourself in their shoes.

4. Acknowledge to yourself, and the other, that part of the problem that belongs to you:

To ensure your sincerity in owning up to your part, be sure that you can specifically identify what part is your fault, and why.

5. Talk about your feelings instead of acting on them:

Take them (your feelings) out on a “test-run” by discussing with a ‘”safe”, trusted workplace colleague. Friends, spouses and other caring family members may be able to fulfill this ‘try-out” role, too, but an actual workplace colleague with whom you feel most secure is best.

6. Establish a common goal and stay focused on it.

7. Be persistent in coming to a satisfactory solution if the issue is important to you.

8. At the end of the discussion with the other, summarize what’s been decided, who will take any next steps and set a follow-up date for checking in with one another to see how things are going.

Remember, finally, feedback is most helpful if it is:

1. Descriptive, not evaluative:

“You’ve deferred the effective date twice,” rather than, “You’re not true to your word.”

2. Specific versus general:

“I appreciate the way you regularly keep us in the loop with Monday morning meetings,” rather than, “You communicate well with staff.”

3. Solicited versus imposed:

When you impose feedback, the other person may feel defensive; when feedback is solicited, there’s a better chance your feedback will be well received.

4. Well-timed:

Offer feedback as soon after the triggering situation (provided that you believe the receiver is ready and willing to hear your thoughts, and provided you have sufficiently reflected on your comfort and the appropriateness of speaking up).

5. Focused on modifiable behaviour:

Frustration is only increased when people–those to whom you report or otherwise–are reminded of shortcomings over which they may have no control. Offer feedback on attitudes, behaviours, policies, procedures, corporate philosophies, etc., you know the receiver has the ability and power to modify, if the receiver is inspired to listen and act.

6. Considerate of the needs of the receiver and giver:

Offer feedback from a position of professional concern and caring, sincerely expressed. People can tell when so called “caring words”, supposedly offered in their “best interest”, of the organization, person, etc., aren’t heartfelt; pay attention to the needs of the person on the receiving end of your feedback, too–not just on your needs.

7. Validated with the receiver:

Before you speak up and offer feedback, get (or guess) the receiver’s perspective on the topic. After giving the feedback, check that the information you offered was accurately received and be quick–get your point across and seek the receiver’s response within 60 seconds–otherwise the receiver may feel attacked and become defensive; be succinct with your opening comments.

8. Not a demand for change:

Many speak up and give feedback as a way of demanding that someone or something change. When feedback is sincerely and consciously offered, it’s not a demand for change, it’s simply a sharing of information, which the receiver can then apply as he or she chooses. And, if your position and information is convincing enough, your ideas and words may, after all, result in the outcome you desire.

If you’re contemplating speaking up about an issue at work right now, or if you’re in a position of official leadership and suspect that employees are hesitant to openly and honestly talk to you, consider these two reflections on the fear of speaking up at work, offered by Sarah Jane Gilbert, content developer at Harvard Business School’s Baker Library:

“As every company knows, employees are its greatest resource. It’s more than a shame, then, that many workers are either not encouraged or afraid to speak up and communicate ideas at work. Employers are losing valuable knowledge and experience, and their companies are weaker for that loss.”

“Perhaps most surprising is the degree to which fear appears to be a feature of modern work life. Whenever we talk with others about this work, such as on airplanes with strangers, we get a similar response–“Oh yeah, I can relate to wanting to speak up but bite my tongue.” It’s really a shame how much apparently untapped knowledge there is out there and how much pain and frustration results from this silence. That, too, has been somewhat surprising–that people are genuinely hurt and frustrated about their silence. This suggests that employees aren’t failing to provide ideas or input because they’ve “checked out” and just don’t care, but because of fear.”

So, perhaps right now, during these tenuous times, is the right time to speak up, after all, or forever hold your peace…at least until better days, that is!

Listen to everyone in your company and figure out ways to get them talking. The folks on the frontline–the ones who actually talk to customers–are the only ones that really know what’s going on out there. You’d better find out what they know. — Sam Walton

P.S. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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