Learn to Speak Up

Honestly and respectfully disagreeing with managers trumps the sound of silence.

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So you’re in a meeting and your boss tasks you and your team with a major project — and a totally unrealistic timeline. Should you suffer in silence and resign yourself to failure before the endeavor even gets off the ground? Or should you speak up and tell him or her it’s tantamount to mission impossible, then wait for the inevitable recriminations — perhaps even lose your job?

Actually, there’s a third option that involves a more middle-of-the-road approach that actually might garner some respect from your boss instead of a demotion or a pink slip. And like so many things in life, success depends on how carefully you frame your concerns, says Justin Hale, employee-development consultant.

But before we delve into strategies, consider that most employees overplay the risk of managerial recriminations, says Hale, a master trainer and speaker at VitalSmarts (www.vitalsmarts.com), a leadership-training company based in Provo, Utah. And while it’s tempting to follow our natural instincts to avoid conflict, it also behooves employees to assess the risks of remaining silent.

“We typically overestimate the short-term cost of speaking up and don’t calculate at all the long-term consequences of not speaking up,” he asserts. “Whatever you’re permitting, you’re promoting: You’re sending a message to your leaders that they can give you impossible deadlines and impose impossible workloads on your staff, which in turn promotes turnover and crushes morale.”

Common problem

Moreover, realize that you’re not alone in your reticence to speak out. “It happens all the time,” Hale says. “I think that across many industries, how to speak truth to power definitely is one of the five most common conversations people struggle to hold.

“And it doesn’t help that we often see other people fail at these conversations so all we have to go on are bad models for how to handle them,” he adds. “That just perpetuates a belief that those kinds of conversations can’t be held. Or that we shouldn’t even try because the likelihood of success is low.”

A study performed by VitalSmarts, called Silence Fails, backs up Hale’s assertion. The study showed that only 14% of roughly 1,000 employees surveyed at a wide variety of companies spoke up and felt skilled at doing so when confronted with unrealistic project expectations. “We found a pervasive and persistent problem of silence,” he says.

Another interesting factor: When presented with hypothetical situations, most employees overestimate how they’d react. “They see themselves as truth-bearers, but most fail to act when they actually face that kind of situation,” he notes.

Ingrained behavioral patterns

Why does this happen so often? Hale says part of it is societal programming that begins in childhood, when we’re repeatedly told that if we have nothing nice to say, we shouldn’t say anything at all. Or that we shouldn’t hurt peoples’ feelings. Or that disagreeing with colleagues or superiors make us less of a team player.

“It’s not like all of that just goes away,” Hale points out. “We call it the fool’s choice, in which we foolishly convince ourselves that it’s an either/or situation — either be nice (silent) or speak out forcibly and be reprimanded. Then we feel like martyrs and think, ‘I knew that would happen if I spoke the truth.’”

Furthermore, many organizations perpetuate this code of silence by creating company cultures that discourage healthy debate, new perspectives and innovations. “Managers and other company leaders need to do their part to create an atmosphere where they invite people to ask questions — challenge assumptions and perspectives,” Hale explains.

In fact, sometimes it’s better for managers to not even share their views when proposing a project or initiative because employees tend to take the path of least resistance and agree with the managers’ perspectives. In behavioral psychology, Hale says, the concept is known as anchoring, because the manager’s opinion “anchors” the ensuing discussion, which in turns limits employees’ willingness to share divergent ideas.

Breaking the silence

So what’s the best way to go about disagreeing with a superior? First of all, don’t buy into the fool’s choice. “It’s just not true that you have to choose between being honest and being respectful (silent),” Hale emphasizes. “There’s a place where you can be both.”

It’s important to first establish a psychological safety zone by telling the manager that you care about the project or initiative as much as they do. “Something along the lines of, ‘I want you to know that I want this project to succeed — it’s a huge opportunity,’” Hale suggests.

That helps defuse the defensive reaction that often occurs because a manager misperceives the messenger’s intent. Next, ask for permission to express a few concerns.

“It’s rare to have a manager who doesn’t want to hear any feedback,” Hale says. “Instead of telling a manager that they’re naïve, tell them you’re concerned because, for instance, the last time we tried an initiative like this, it took six months and you now want to do it in three.”

It’s also critical to stick to just the facts. Most people fail at this because instead of calmly and rationally laying out a case based on just cold, hard data, they blurt out a critique built on biases, opinions and emotional interpretations, he notes.

“As a result, when you speak that truth to power, it’s more likely the power will get defensive,” Hale says.

After expressing your concerns, be open to any ensuing dialogue — engage in a reasoned discussion about timelines, budgets and employee resources required to accomplish the proposed initiative. And realize that, ultimately, it’s the manager’s decision, not yours.

Also, don’t wait too long to voice concerns, as you don’t want a manager to ask why you didn’t speak up sooner, Hale adds.

The best policy

Hale cautions against being “brutally honest,” pointing out that there’s nothing in the definition of “honest” that involves brutality. “When people say they want to be brutally honest, they’re usually more intent on being brutal than honest,” he says.

“Honesty is about clarity and specificity — legitimate sharing of facts,” he concludes. “Always be as honest as you can, as long as you’re sharing just facts.”

The onus is also on managers to encourage healthy dissent. Hale says that teams and individuals who work in a culture of candor and transparency outperform their peers. And when people feel heard, they’re also more likely to stay on the job, too. So learn how to speak up and voice truth to power. It’s much better than the sound of silence.


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