In the second of three blogs for Hult, Professor Megan Reitz offers insights and advice on speaking up effectively in the workplace. She draws from the findings of her research on “Speaking Truth to Power,” which has been featured by Harvard Business Review and the BBC and is the subject of her new book, Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard, (Financial Times Publishing).


Think about one thing you could – or should – speak up about at work, but haven’t done yet. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic whistleblowing situation. It could be some feedback that you know would be useful for a colleague. Or a process or strategy you’d like to challenge. Or an idea you’d like to offer about doing something differently.

What affects your choice about whether you are likely to speak up or stay silent?

The often mundane choices that you and your colleagues make about speaking up can end up having dramatic effects on careers, relationships, reputations, and in some cases, even lives. In extreme cases, malpractice can end up flourishing while innovation perishes. Learning to speak up effectively has become a personal and organizational imperative.


The three traps

Our research points to three common traps that we fall into that either keep us silent or mean we are ineffective. Which of these do you fall into?

  1. The “imposter voice” silences us. Imposter experience occurs when we doubt our capabilities, feel we don’t deserve our current levels of success and think we are imminently about to be “found out!” Although I have interviewed some people who I might argue need more imposter voice, most of us need to be able to recognize our doubts and fears, critique them, and dial them down.
  2. We abdicate. We think “it’s not my job,” or “someone else is bound to say something.” Sometimes, the more people know something, the less likely people are to speak about it – precisely because we assume others will speak up. A senior NHS clinician told us how he decided it wasn’t up to him to give his colleague feedback about his behavior 30 years ago when they were junior doctors. He later found himself having to run a misconduct hearing about his colleague, who tearfully claimed that he did not realize his behavior was considered bullying. No-one, in 30 years, had ever told him.
  3. We get so focused on building up the courage to say something that we forget about the person we are speaking to. We say something at a moment that suits us and with verbal and non-verbal language that is in our comfort zone but not necessarily in theirs. For example, we interviewed a change manager who had passionately tried to “sell” his change plan to the Financial Director. Cross-armed and stern-looking, the FD allowed him to speak for ten minutes and then said “we’re facing a huge deficit that I’ve got six months to clear – how does this help with that?” The change manager had forgotten to see the world from the FD’s point of view. Forgetting to empathize and adapt how we speak up is a common mistake in cross-cultural communication.

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How to speak up more effectively

Asking yourself the “5Ws” that we detail in our book can help. Take a look at these questions in the light of the issue/idea that you currently have but haven’t spoken up about yet:

  1. “Why?” examines the purpose behind you speaking up. What outcome are you seeking? What’s your positive intention? What would happen if you didn’t say anything?
  2. “Who?” identifies the right person/people to speak to and whether it is you that is best placed to speak up. Who, given their agenda, is willing to listen to you and support you? Should you speak up alone, or should someone else, or should you do it together as allies?
  3. “Where?” identifies the location that would be most conducive to speaking up and being heard. Is what you have to communicate best done via email, on a virtual platform, or face-to-face? In a formal meeting or at the coffee shop? Where works best for the other person?
  4. “When?” identifies when the other person can best hear you. Timing is what makes or kills a joke. The same applies for speaking up. Is the issue urgent? When will you be at your best speaking up? Do you need to cool off? When is the other person open to hearing?
  5. “What?” refers to the precise words and signals you should use to get your message across. It requires you to consider the cultural context. Given your understanding of the other person’s context, personality, and perspective, what signals should you send verbally and non-verbally? And what signals should you avoid?

The choices you make today and for the rest of your life about whether to speak up or stay silent define you. They have a dramatic effect on those around you at work and at home. Making more conscious, skillful choices is imperative for you, for others, and the society we are co-constructing.


Next week, in the final installment of this series, Professor Reitz will be offering insights and advice on effective listening. Part one, published last week, focuses on how approachable you are and whether people are telling you the truth. Professor Reitz’s findings are based on her research into the subject and resulting book, Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard, (Financial Times Publishing). 


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