Speaking up can be tough! So, what can make it a little easier – based on the latest evidence.

I am a straightforward northerner. We’re not known for mincing our words, so why is it such a challenge to speak up some times at work?

The truth of course is that it varies – some contexts and some people are easier. Some organisations I worked in made it very difficult, a few people have made it easy.

It’s also not just in work, sometimes the hardest people to speak up with are the ones we are closest to.

So what makes it hard? Why can it feel like walking a tightrope? Fortunately, there is a growing body of research into this subject – providing some useful clues about what is going on and how we can make it easier for ourselves.

Here are three useful perspectives – each building on the other:

  1. Psychological safety
  2. Self-confidence
  3. Less conflict, more candour

Psychological safety

There is a growing body of research into psychological safety. Amy Edmondson has studied the subject for around 30 years and defines it as:

The belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

AMY Edmondson, 1999

She argues that our judgement about whether to speak up is influenced by three key factors:

  • Previous experiences – have you or others been slammed for speaking up?
  • Impression management – we prefer to be considered smart, in the know, positive. Speaking up could jeopardise this perception.
  • My opinion won’t count anyway – why bother? There’s no point anyway.

All three resonate with me quite honestly – professionally and personally.

Recently, I had an instance in my personal life. I needed to address an issue with two people close to me. Unfortunately, I had been shut down several times previously, I feared they would think me petty for raising it, and it didn’t suit them to hear me for different reasons. All three factors! No wonder it was tough.

Do they also resonate with you too? Last time you were faced with making a choice about whether to speak up, which factor (of factors) was in play?

Self-confidence

Self-confidence also influences whether you speak up. The term is used a lot, but few people really understand how it really works and how to best develop it. Here are two key insights from research and experience that might be useful.

Firstly, there are three aspects of self-confidence

In my own research, I discovered there are three aspects to confidence – which interact but are also rather different.

Dancing with fear and confidence: How to liberate yourself and your career in mid-life – by Laura Walker
  • Self-efficacy – how competent you feel in given situations or in performing a particular task.
  • Self-esteem – how you evaluate yourself, how good, how smart, how kind, how good looking etc.
  • Self-worth – how worthy you are of love, happiness, respect.

In the context of speaking up, all three aspects can be relevant. How competent you feel you in the subject being discussed, how you feel about yourself that day, and how worthy you believe you are of being heard by this person/people.

In practice, self-efficacy is a great place to start. By building your competence and confidence in a topic, situation, or capability you can boost your confidence enough to speak up – and potentially boost your self-esteem too.

Secondly, confidence is actually about certainty.

The other thing to know about confidence is the role of certainty.

We make judgements about ourselves all the time. How good am I at this? How much do I really know about that? How well am I doing relative to others? How decent a person am I? You aren’t more or less confident because you make judgements alone.

Confidence is about how certain you are in the judgements you make about yourself – how much you trust them and how much you use them.

Confidence is about certainty – how certain you are about the truth of something.

Dr Richard Petty
  • How certain you are of your competence (or incompetence) in this area – and to what extent do you show that?
  • How certain you are that you are OK (or not) in this context, and how does this flows through to your behaviour?
  • How certain you are that your opinion is worthy (or unworthy) of being listened to by these people, in this context?
  • How certain you are that you will be punished or humiliated?

Importantly, you can challenge your certainty.

What is the judgement I just made about my competence based on? Would I judge others in this way? What alternative assessments could I make? What constructive feedback could I give myself? How could I become more certainty of my competence?

Less conflict, more candour

We know the fear of being punished or humiliated influences whether we speak up. Conflict also has a part to play. Conflict, and fear of conflict, can further increase the perceived risk of being punished, humiliated, excluded, isolated, wrong, disrespected.

The research, again, provides some valuable clues.

Conflict in organisations isn’t necessarily bad. In theory, conflict can promote better decision-making and foster innovation by ensuring diverse views and perspectives are considered. In practice, it can be hard to navigate – it’s easy to get upset, dig your heels in, challenge the person rather than the idea or view point.

Conflict an active disagreement between people with opposing opinions or principles

Cambridge dictionary

Evidence shows conflict often gets in the way of team performance, but when teams learn to ‘put conflict to good use’, it can enable productive decision making and the teams excel (Edmondson and Smith, 2006). They do this by making candour real, an expectation, a requirement.

Candour/Candor

the quality of being honest and telling the truthespecially about a difficult or embarrassing subject:

Cambridge dictionary

Candour focuses more on the telling than the disagreement.

How you speak up matters. Your intent, your position in the conversation, your tone, your language, your behaviour.

What is your intent in speaking up – to inform, to challenge, to contradict, to vent, to offer something? Is this how it comes across? Might it help to label it?

Here are some practical things you can do inspired by Edmondson’s work:

  • Label the type of conversation you are having – so people know the intent and how to best contribute. For example, is it a discussion, a debate, or teaching
  • Be a “don’t knower” – when you don’t know and you’re really listening intently, people want to help you (Eileen Fisher)
  • Don’t try to win – finding out you are wrong is even more valuable than being right, focus on what is true and what to do about it (Ray Dalio)
  • Master “I don’t know” – when new in role or faced with a complex, dynamic, uncertain world, being situationally humble is simple realism (Anne Mulcahy)
  • Inquire proactively – which begins with cultivating a genuine interest in others’ responses, involves asking genuine questions, and expressing appreciation.

A thoughtful truthteller

I mentioned I am a straightforward northerner. I am also a thoughtful truthteller. Speaking up, and finding ways to speak truth to power, are part of who I am and a core part of my work. It’s not always easy. Often it isn’t easy. I tie myself in knots sometimes, trying to find the right context, the right words, the right voice. But, I frequently feel compelled to speak up – especially for others if not myself.

I suspect this is a life’s work for me and am still in the foot fills. I have genuinely enjoyed writing this article as part of this work – and hope you got something from it too. I’d love to have more conversations about it, learn from others. If you share this interest, let’s talk.

References

Edmondson, A.C. and Smith, D.M. Too hot to handle? How to manage relationship conflict. California Management Review 49.1 (2006) 6-31

Edmonson, A.C. (2019)The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation and growth. Wiley.

Walker, L (2020) Dancing with fear and confidence: How to liberate yourself and your career in mid-life. London. MPowr Publishing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s