How to start speaking up for yourself at work

It’s no secret that people who speak up at work are viewed as more likeable by their peers, enjoy higher status and are perceived to be better performers by those more senior than them (Burris, 2012; Weiss & Morrison, 2019).


Often staying quiet and ignoring your feelings is an adaptive response to blending in and not wanting to draw attention to yourself. This strategy is only helpful if you do not have an opinion or the required knowledge to participate in the conversation. Otherwise it is working against you. 


3 Reasons you may fear speaking up for yourself

1. Unsure of what your contribution could be

Often, you are invited to meetings because the organiser believes you have something to contribute. So, if that is unclear to you then it’s important for you to understand what they believe it might be. This could be particularly helpful in preparing for a meeting and understanding when you are expected to contribute to the discussion, if you feel you need permission. In conversations where you are unclear what is being asked of you, it's okay to ask, "what do you need from me?" or "how would you like me to help you with this?" so you can decide if you can assist or not.


2. Fear of maintaining increased participation and engagement

You have probably noticed that when you start to change your behaviour and it becomes consistent, those around you naturally start to change their expectations of you. Perhaps having others recognise your increased participation and engagement in meetings and discussions, you may fear being stretched too thinly or it could leave you wondering if you can sustain it. As increased engagement requires you to maintain presence and focus, and think on your feet more frequently, which requires more energy.


3. Fear of offending

If you’re like most people starting out in a new job, career or have been intimidated by others in the past, you will be keen to observe the unwritten rules of how things get done, before you jump right in and contribute unsolicited information. However, you cannot take responsibility for how others respond if you are contributing with empathy and integrity. Most people value well thought out responses even when they challenge the status quo.


An example of speaking up in the workplace

When Amy first joined the team at her new company, she was excited to embrace the challenge of learning a new industry and becoming part of a successful team. But as a person who always gave 110%, Amy quickly found herself annoyed with the existing team members. They were also 110 percent-ers keen to show their knowledge and be the best in the team. As a result, they often spoke over one another or just never listened to what the other person had to say. Amy was yet to be invited into a conversation.


Rather than rock the boat, Amy resigned herself to feeling small and unheard. It didn’t take long for her to feel like she was there, but not really there. She often found herself daydreaming and planning her weekend in team meetings where her colleagues were busy trying to out-do each other. Amy found herself questioning why they had hired her. She has started resenting her new workplace and team. She complained to a good friend about the struggle she was experiencing at her new work who gently suggested that she stand up for herself and invite herself into conversations.


Amy started by talking with her manager about how she could include herself more in conversations, given this work culture was new to her. Getting his perspective without making accusations about the culture was helpful. She explained how the team’s passionate communication style led to her ideas not getting considered and how it was impacting on the client solutions that were being offered. She also explained how she felt this way of working was isolating everyone from each other and decreasing knowledge sharing opportunities. She then gently suggested a few ways that the team could start communicating better and sharing information, so client solutions were truly a team effort.


Although it took some time to implement Amy’s suggestions, Amy saw how much effort everyone was making, and she felt less isolated and more visible because everyone was trying. She was much happier arriving at work each day.


Amy felt heard and respected. She’s no longer feeling resentful of her team members and instead feels comfortable expressing herself when she notices resentment creeping back into her thoughts. As a result, the whole team is happier and more productive.


4 Ways you can start speaking up at work

1. Believe it or not, humans are feeling beings, and emotions are natural and normal. They are a big part of what makes each of us unique. They don’t have to define how you behave as they ebb and flow with your day. Acknowledge your feelings and contribute with empathy and integrity anyway. 


2. Plan to contribute something in your meetings and incidental conversations. You may even want to set a goal for how many times you will contribute in each interaction.


3. Even if you have nothing to add, you can ask clarifying questions so you can understand the issue better or you can share your agreement with someone else’s comments.


4. If you are really nervous, look for a structured event where you can be assigned a role, like in a meeting. Ask the meeting organizer if you can assume a role in the meeting, like summarizing key points, noting action items or time keeping.


If you are like most people learning to speak up at work, you may feel more nervous or self-conscious than usual when you first start sharing your point of view. Recognise that this is a normal part of the process when you start expand your comfort zone. It will get easier. Allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them. Start journaling or writing down your experiences and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can improve your visibility and impact through speaking up.


If you are keen to progress your career and have your colleagues take you seriously, then this is a core skill you need to learn and the only way that can happen is through practice.  


If you would like to overcome your fear of speaking up at work or in meetings with a proven formula, then I’d encourage you to sign up for my new targeted skills offer Confident Conversations at Work Formula.

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