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When is it Safe to Speak Up at Work?



Organizations vary considerably in the extent to which they allow their workers autonomy.  Some companies of the empowering type want you to stop the engines if you think they’re going off the track.  They don’t even mind when a talented person comes up with an idea that doesn’t work, so long as much of the time he or she comes up with ideas that do work.  There’s room for failure in such companies and so there’s room for initiative, growth and creativity.

Within this type of environment are two important considerations for individuals who are thinking about taking the initiative to speak up at work.  One is the importance of first establishing a credible track record, usually composed of a series of successful small or justified risks; risks taken because the circumstances make them reasonable.  For example, being asked to join a meeting because of your expertise may not give you carte blanche, but it should justify some risky comments – particularly when you know more than others on the subject at hand.

How you introduce a risky idea is crucial.  While you may have expertise that others present do not, it’s still useful to provide a frame.  “I was asked to be here today to help with the technical aspect of our discussion.  Given that, I propose....”  

Those who effectively speak up at work determine what unstated rules need to be followed, such as timing and the extent of likely disagreement.  They’ve practiced how to frame deviations from such rules as (1) necessities under the circumstances, (2) due to specific expertise, or (3) based on a concern that may have been overlooked.

Aside from the importance of people knowing how to introduce risky information, it is key to observe how leaders organize meetings.  More often than not, I’ve seen meetings begin without any mention of what type of input is welcome.  While people who meet regularly tend to formulate (often semi-consciously), a sense of what is and isn’t acceptable, even in those circumstances it’s useful to provide guidelines.  An opening comment such as “We’re going to grapple with some difficult issues at this meeting.  Opinions are welcome” may be sufficient to elicit useful information from employees who would otherwise be reluctant to share.

Of course, not all meetings or parts of them can or should be wide open.  If substantial progress has already been made, if negotiation has led to a working agreement, risking the undoing of all that has been achieved in order to accommodate a new idea could be counterproductive.  

I once worked with a company where meetings were frequently like that.   Progress would be made, agreement reached, but then the senior executive present would ask, “Does anyone have another idea – one we might have missed?”  If someone had one, all prior work was scrapped.  In fact, this happened so often that eventually everyone dreaded meetings.  By the way, we were able to work on that problem by identifying when new ideas rather than tweaks of ones already well-developed and appreciated, facilitated progress.  The number of productive meetings increased substantially. 

 Photo:  eyeidea/

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