Speaking up is essential to share ideas, question decisions, and challenge behaviors. But the challenge of raising quiet voices is one leaders often struggle with. How do you help people move from a place of silence to finding their voice?
NLI’s review of the research suggests there are a few key strategies, all of which boil down to reducing what scientists call social threat and maximizing social reward. When we feel hesitant or afraid to speak up, typically it’s because we imagine all the negative things that could happen to us: damaged relationships, decreased status, retribution. On the other hand, if we know others will receive our contributions with an open mind, we may begin to feel emboldened to speak up.
Below we’ve compiled a few articles to get you started on your own speaking-up journey. Think of them as your first steps toward creating a culture of speaking up in your own organization.
1. Show you assume ‘positive intent’
People who keep quiet often fear their ideas will be seen as an attack against another person’s ideas, behavior, decisions—or the person themselves. That’s why, according to Dr. Mona Weiss, Psychologist and Assistant Professor of Management and Diversity at the Free University of Berlin, employees (and leaders especially) must show they assume positive intent. That is, they start from a position of thinking someone means well and ultimately wants the best for the organization.
According to Dr. Weiss, conveying the assumption of positive intent can disarm people and give them the psychological safety they need that their thoughts and ideas are welcome.
2. Turn speaking up into writing down
Using your voice doesn’t have to mean using your vocal cords. Leaders can get creative in how they solicit input from quieter team members by relying on shared platforms, such as Google Docs, or asking people to submit suggestions via an anonymous online survey. This helps people who might need more time to reflect on a problem sort through their thoughts instead of being put on the spot.
(An added benefit in meetings is that leaders can be more productive in less time, namely by engaging in parallel processing—where multiple people share ideas all at once—instead of serial processing, where people take turns one at a time.)
3. Whenever possible, build inclusivity
Getting people to speak up is, ultimately, a sign of an inclusive culture. People feel so valued within a particular group that they can’t help but speak their mind, even if it challenges people who are technically higher-status. If we reverse-engineer that scenario, we see that leaders can create the conditions for speaking up by capitalizing on every opportunity to be inclusive.
In practice, that can look like a few things. It could mean starting a meeting by telling everyone that you value their opinions, or it could mean confiding in individual people—who may be on the quieter side—that you want them in the room because you know they have a lot to contribute.
This habit, like the others, requires continual attention to create lasting change. At NLI we define culture as “shared everyday habits.” The way to create a culture of speaking up, therefore, is to perform the actions that move people from a place of threat to a place of reward—not once, but on a steady, ongoing basis.