The challenge of speaking out

Ayesha’s voice sounded tight as she spoke.

“I’m struggling and I wonder if you can help? It’s my boss. He speaks at 10,000 miles an hour and I can hardly get a word in. None of us can. We have team meetings that aren’t really ‘meetings’ at all.”

This sounded familiar. Many of the managers I’ve coached over the years have faced the challenge of ‘managing upwards.’

“How can I interject without being rude? I feel exhausted already. If I’m going to be working with this person, how can I find ways to engage with him more in conversation? Our dialogue isn’t really a dialogue at all.”

My heart sank as I listened. Why do so many leaders have a blind spot when it comes to communication? How come it falls on team members to try to disrupt a pattern of the most senior person dominating the airwaves? What if a leader created a safe space where real concerns could be raised and then discussed?

The challenge of speaking out

Ayesha’s question reminded me of the challenge that Megan Reitz and John Higgins give in their book ‘Speak Out, Listen Up.’ Many leaders say “My door is always open” which sounds positive, but there’s a shadowy side. A leader is in effect ‘shifting the burden’ and making others (often more junior) take responsibility for speaking out and carry the risks of doing so.

Below I share a tool for team members to speak out when that’s needed. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Megan Reitz (Associate Fellow at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford and professor of dialogue and leadership at Hult Ashridge International Business School) about the TRUTH framework she co-created with John Higgins. The second edition of Speak Out, Listen Up, hit the shelves two months ago and it’s packed with insights about how to have better conversations in a world of power dynamics, employee activism and hybrid working.  

Speak out using the ‘TRUTH’ tool

At the heart of Megan and John’s book is the ‘TRUTH’ framework which a team member such as Ayesha could use to ‘unsilence themselves.’ There’s a corresponding version for leaders to cultivate their capacity to ‘listen up.’ Both have the potential to transform a stuck meeting into a conversation that matters. Here I focus on the ‘speak out’ version given the persistent challenge many managers face of calling up their courage to voice what’s on their mind. TRUTH is an acronym that stands for (more detail below):

  • Trust in your opinion
  • Risk of speaking out
  • Understand workplace power and politics
  • Titles that we use to judge whether to speak out
  • How to choose the right words and moment to speak out
  1. Trust in your opinion

Research shows that only 3 out of 10 employees in the United States think their opinion counts. In the UK I wonder if this is even lower, given the number of difficult conversations I see being avoided. To speak out, you need to trust in the value of your perspective. Questions to reflect on to help increase your confidence that you have something of value to say include:

  • How much do you trust the value of your opinion? How could you deepen your confidence?
  • To what extent do you have something relevant to say (or are you just wanting to vent?)
  • Is ‘imposter syndrome’ or your inner critic interfering with your ability to speak? What could you say to that part of you so that your ‘true’ voice comes through?

In our coaching sessions, Ayesha and I explored how she could sometimes speak out with a question rather than an opinion. When Ayesha said that she would find it easier in team meetings to raise a query rather than a concern, I suggested that there was likely to be one or more persons in the room who would share her question to strengthen her confidence.

2. Risk of speaking out

Some team members fear that they’ll end up losing their job as a result of airing a contentious issue. In their research, Megan and John discovered that some managers have been left with a sense of a pair of ‘smoking shoes’ when a colleague bit the bullet, said what needed to be spoken and then had a rapid departure. No wonder others decide to stay silent. Questions to help you manage the risk of speaking out include:

  • What’s the worst that could actually happen if I did speak out?
  • What are the risks of staying silent?
  • If I had no fear of the consequences, what would I say?

Acknowledging the risks of speaking out, such as potential conflict or backlash from your boss, brings clarity. Weigh these potential consequences against the importance of addressing the issue to clinch your decision to speak out (or not.) The consequences of raising a tricky issue might not be as devastating as you think.

3. Understand workplace power and politics

Organisations are full of politics. Who says what to whom and when are the cut-and-thrust of day-to-dy life. The rules of the game through which power gets exercised and decisions get made are not always obvious but they cast a long shadow on how a team functions.

Taking a moment to figure out the politics, personal agendas and ego needs of your stakeholders pays dividends. Instead of dashing off an email, think through how your stakeholder might need to be ‘stroked’, whether with some appreciation or acknowledgment. You can unitendedly offend someone with an offhand request.

Be savvy and think about whose toes you might be stepping on if you do speak out. To increase you political ‘nouse’, think about:

  • What’s important to my stakeholder? What matters to them?
  • How can I tailor my approach to increase the likelihood that my message is received positively?
  • What communication style (e.g. direct, consultative or appreciative) will work best?

Seek to understand the other person’s perspective and motivations. Consider what kind of challenge is acceptable: is it behind closed doors or in a more public forum? Shape your approach based on your understanding of them and the unwritten rules of how to interact.  

4. Titles that we use to judge whether to speak out

The titles and labels others attach to you and you attach to others shape what you say in a conversation. If you’re seen as ‘new’, ‘female’, or ‘junior’ this might inhibit you from speaking out. Similarly if you’ve been labelled as a ‘troublemaker’ you might be loath to be ‘true to your type’ and rock the boat by speaking out.

How you perceive others is also significant. Bosses can carry undue authority due to their grander sounding title. To cultivate some detached clarity, I encouraged Ayesha to reflect on these questions:

  • Who am I taking them to be? (Villain, perpetrator or rescuer?) Who am I taking myself to be? (Victim, the persecuted or the hapless one?) Who are they and who am I, really?
  • How can I work with, rather than wish away, formal role titles or labels even if I don’t like them or feel that they’re unfair?

If we’re unaware of their impact, titles can tip us into being transactional. A fruitful conversation takes place between human beings who see one another clearly.

5. How to choose the right words and the right moment to speak out

How you speak out makes a huge difference to the impact you’ll have. Choosing the right words at the right time in the right place calls for some prep. Think through how to make constructive suggestions or solutions when raising concerns. Instead of just pointing out problems, provide recommendations for improvement and offer your support in addressing the issue collaboratively.

You might also test the waters before speaking up directly. Start by raising smaller issues or concerns in a non-confrontational manner to gauge your boss’s receptiveness. This allows you to assess the situation and adjust your approach accordingly. To deepen your skill at speaking out, think about:

  • When is the best time to speak? Pick your moment.
  • Where is the right place? Choose your setting: formal or informal? Online or in-person?
  • What will be the first thing you say? Find your opening and set the tone (there are some great suggestions for opening lines in my new book Now We’re Talking.)

In closing

By following the TRUTH model, team members such as Ayesha can navigate the challenges of speaking up to a dominant boss in a thoughtful manner. I was heartened to receive this note from Ayesha a few months after her initial message:

I just wanted to drop you a note to say thank you so much for the coaching sessions I have attended with you. Through your quiet, sensitive style you helped me to open up and to share all my concerns and fears with you. This meant I could then find ways to express them with others when I needed to instead of, as you know, continuing to stew.”

“Communication in the team is going remarkably well now that I’ve found my voice more and other team members are also starting to do the same. We’re listening better to one another and our boss is no longer hogging all the airwaves. We’re slowly finding ways of building on each other’s contributions so that we actually do some thinking together.” Overcoming the challenge of speaking out fosters open communication, mutual respect and positive outcomes for individuals and the team. Ayesha has demonstrated that when a team member develops their capacity to speak out about real concerns, a team is then able to discuss what really matters and positive transformation happens.

Sarah Rozenthuler
Sarah Rozenthuler