Why It’s so Hard to Speak up at Work — and What to Do About It
Every organization needs people to find their voice. Whether it’s to elevate good ideas, call out problematic decision-making, or flag questionable behavior, speaking up is how teams arrive at the smartest, safest outcomes.
However, the data show that people rarely speak up. And often, they regret not doing so. In one survey, 72% of respondents could point to an instance when they or others failed to speak up effectively when a peer wasn’t pulling their weight. The survey also found that 40% of people estimated they wasted two weeks or more ruminating about the problem over which they stayed silent.
What we see here is a gap: between what people know to be right, and what they actually do. Cognitive scientists call this the “knowing-doing gap.” Even when people know they should perform a certain action — say, quitting smoking or avoiding junk food — they still fail to perform the desirable action.
At NLI, part of our job is to help teams bridge that gap, to move from knowing to doing.
The science of speaking up
Speaking up poses such a problem for people because it involves something called “social threat.” We’ve all felt it at one time or another — those feelings of unease, anxiousness, or fear that take over in stressful social situations. When we feel socially threatened, our brains divert resources away from high-level thought to heighten our senses, in preparation to flee.
For many of us, the thought alone of challenging someone’s ideas or behavior is painful. Oftentimes, just sharing an idea can cause those feelings of threat to bubble up. We may wonder, What if people think I’m stupid? Maybe I’ll just keep my thoughts to myself.
The speaking up continuum
When it comes to speaking up, the research suggests it helps to organize one’s thinking around a “speaking up continuum.” This continuum ranges from small acts of speaking up, which are somewhat threatening only to the speaker, to big acts, which may be threatening to both the speaker and the recipient (or recipients).
Generally speaking, we can label three points on the continuum: sharing your ideas, questioning another person’s ideas or decisions, and challenging another person’s behaviors. These acts increase the potential for threat because it’s easier to manage our own threat versus threat in others (step 1 to step 2), and because behaviors feel more indicative of who we are as a person than our ideas (step 2 to step 3).
Using what we know about social threat, we can create guidelines for managing threat at each step of the continuum. One strategy is if-then planning, to switch from a pragmatic lens (What is the easy thing to do?) to a moral lens (What is the right thing to do?). For example, if you know you want to share a new idea at the next sales meeting, ahead of time you may create the if-then plan, “If sales strategy comes up in the meeting, then I’ll mention my idea.”
Though the nudge may be small, sometimes that’s all we really need to move from knowing to doing — from silence to speaking up.
Cultures of speaking up
Organizations that help people locate their sense of threat on the speaking up continuum do themselves at least a couple favors. First, they build a common language for speaking up. We know from research that teams with a common language communicate better, make decisions faster, and build a more tight-knit culture overall.
The second benefit, and perhaps the larger one, is that more moments of speaking up mean fewer cases of groupthink, backpedaling, and legal challenges. In addition to creating a safer working environment, where people are held accountable for their actions, leaders can watch as the team members they once saw as “quiet” or “shy” suddenly start freeing the ideas they’d been keeping to themselves all along.
These are all things leaders want for their organizations, and they all stem from turning silence into voice.