Why are we here? Are we here to do what we are told, to conform, to keep our heads down and stay out of trouble, or are we here for something else?
In my work I see a great mix of people and there is a large set of people who believe that speaking up is inevitably rude, embarrassing or otherwise bad form. There is another, generally smaller, set of people for whom speaking up is the only way to clarify, stretch, learn and improve.
Keeping quiet was, of course, one of the key lessons of many people’s education. Speaking up exposed us to sniggers and ridicule. Keeping quiet avoided it. Some of us were fortunate to have teachers or schools where speaking up was supported and encouraged, others were not as fortunate.
My experience of running courses is that when people speak up it is a better experience for everyone, as questions in the room, that I fail to identify, don’t just hang there, but get discussed.
If we are to operate in a team or to contribute our full value to any scenario – we have to speak up. We have to ask questions (even if they seem stupid to us), we have to challenge ideas or practices that seem not to be delivering on the objectives, we have to clear up any uncertainty. If we feel uncomfortable or unclear it is our responsibility to sort it out, not anyone else’s. And it is not OK to keep quiet and then whine about something afterwards.
Failure to speak up is a failure of our responsibility to ourselves and our team.
It is very often precisely a failure to speak up, especially in authoritarian environments, that leads to failure. There were a string of aviation disasters in the 1970’s where co-pilots failed to speak up. Subsequently flight crew training was changed to encourage crews to speak up and to create a more team based, less authoritarian culture, in the cockpit.
Speaking up and being challenging is not the same as show boating or causing trouble, it is about participating and responsibility. If you are not used to it, take a moment to phrase your contributions carefully and deliver them sincerely and without apology.
Some may feel that to speak up would risk their job and it is true that in some environments speaking up is synonymous with being a trouble maker. For me this would be a clear sign of a need to move on to a better environment. If we cannot speak up we are compromising our life and if we have any choice at all we need to avoid that.
There are other environments where to speak up is to risk more than just our job, those who speak up in those environments can end up being regarded as heroes, by some. These are environments where control and the ego of those in control is more important (to them) than achieving the best result.
Fortunately for most of us reading this blog, this is not our reality.
It is not just about avoiding disasters, innovation and learning come through the creative tension caused by questions and challenges that are hard to answer. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. We can create necessity by asking the right questions.
In all areas of life, it is our responsibility to speak up. It is an essential part of partnership, teamwork and community. Contrary to our school experience, it is the failure to speak up that leads to failure, risk and inferior results.
To learn to speak up, start by being aware of your feelings. Take a little time to interpret your feelings and work out how to articulate them. Then phrase your articulation as an open and neutral question – perhaps start with “please help me understand why…” Then determine to actually ask the question and do it.
You can also take the responsibility to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable speaking up. Start by asking others how they feel privately at first, remember while it is private it is just gossip and whinging. So if you find others who feel the same way, use the private conversations as an opportunity to practice making the challenge – and then make it.
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