How to speak up and stop the toxic silence

by | Dec 4, 2018 | Blog | 0 comments

What’s the noise level in your workplace?

Even if the decibel level is higher than you like, you and your co-workers could still be experiencing a deafening degree of silence in one aspect — the lack of employee voices speaking up.

A significant number of people prefer to remain quiet rather than speak on issues critical to them and their organization.  

Their reasons vary. They want to fit in with their co-workers and not be viewed negatively. They don’t want to stick their neck out and be labeled as a troublemaker. They don’t want to damage their relationship with others, especially if they would be embarrassing themselves or upsetting others. They may feel it’s futile to say anything since nothing may change. They’re concerned about retribution or punishment, even losing their job.

Fear is a big driver for shutting people up, or keeping them quiet in the first place, according to the research. And much of the blame goes to the environment, namely the work culture.

You’re very likely to keep your mouth shut if you don’t feel psychologically safe at work—that is, safe enough to take interpersonal risks to speak up and share concerns, questions, or ideas—as defined by Harvard Professor and best-selling author Dr. Amy Edmondson.

Yet, silence can be more damaging for employees and organizations than ear-shattering noises.  

Why? When leaders don’t hear about problems, new ideas, opportunities for improvements, or questions that can spur divergent and often more productive thinking, they can’t act.

Employees who don’t feel comfortable speaking up may have regrets later, especially if their nagging concerns turn into problems. And employees who stay silent may not get the respect and recognition they deserve because others haven’t heard enough from them to consider them a player or contributor.

Dr. Edmondson and other experts, including Dr. Heidi Grant, the Chief Science Officer at the NeuroLeadership Institute, advocate changing the work culture to increase psychological safety. They say the environment has a disproportionate effect on whether people feel safe to find and use their voice. By the way, Dr. Edmondson has a brand-new book on this topic, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.

How do you use your voice now, without waiting for a psychologically safe culture to be built and tested?

Here are three actions that work for my clients and me to overcome your fears, gain confidence and embolden yourself to use your voice:

  1. Speak up privately. Go to someone you trust or at least consider receptive to hearing different perspectives and ask for a private conversation. Say you’re willing to be the lone voice to express a diverse point of view, which can be beneficial for you, your leaders and your organization. For more about this, check out my recent blog post How to use dissent to your advantage.
  1. Embrace the future, rather than discount it. Even when we’re convinced that we know something important, especially from a moral perspective, we can talk ourselves out of taking the risk to speak up. We tell ourselves that it’s just not that critical, avoiding the future implications of our silence. Here’s where the amazing Rule of 10-10-10, as invented by Suzy Welch, which I’ve adapted for this situation, can help. Ask yourself these three questions:
  • What are the potential consequences in 10 minutes if you were to stay silent?
  • In 10 months?
  • In 10 years?

For example, the Rule of 10-10-10 has encouraged me to voice my concerns about budding problems and risks that project teams and I may be detecting and may need more analysis. The immediate downside is minimal, but the long-term adverse effects could be devastating.

  1. Ask, not tell. Use questions to raise issues in a strategic way. First make sure you’re in a location that’s conducive to a serious conversation and the individual you’re querying has time and attention for you. Next, ask if you can ask a question. This simple preliminary question signals what you plan to do and lessens the threat for the person you’re talking to, even when that person may be more powerful than you. Then ask an open-ended question, such as “Have you ever considered…..? Or “Can you clarify what assumptions you’re making?” Or “Would you be willing to hear me out about something that’s concerning me?”

Yes, the last question is now a two-part question. By going more slowly, you’re indicating that you’re talking about something deep rather than on the surface. Depending on the sensitivity of the issue you’re raising, you may still find it hard to muster your courage; however, you’ve probably piqued the curiosity of the individual you’re questioning and he or she is more interested in listening to you.

Keep in mind that staying silent is not a neutral act. To be silent is to give your tacit approval to what is happening to you or around you. It’s also being complicit. See my blog post How to use your voice to support humanity for more on this topic.

Still doubtful about speaking up? Contact me to talk over how and when to use your voice, or to introduce psychological safety into your workplace.


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