Speaking up about wrongdoing or incompetence can be scary – but you’ll regret it if you don’t says Jim Detert, business school professor
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Management Today
You’re aware of a problem and have a good solution for it. You’ve got an idea that could improve your organisation. Someone you care about is being hurt by the way others talk to or about them.
It’s obvious you should speak up, right?
Having studied thousands of people contemplating such decisions, I can tell you that far too often what actually feels obvious to people in situations like this is that they should keep their head down and mouth shut. Certainly, they might be able to help others and their organisation if they speak up but what often feels more certain is that something bad might happen to them for trying.
Indeed, speaking up does present plenty of risks. Those who challenge the status quo or people in power face potential economic or career risks such as being negatively appraised, or passed over for promotion, social risks like being ostracised by key players, or psychological risks – for example, looking foolish for having proposed something that doesn’t actually work out. It doesn’t matter that we are hard-wired to over-estimate the likelihood of facing these consequences; they are, sometimes, very real.
Even though it might not feel ‘obvious’ that people should speak up much more often, I still believe that’s the case. Here are three reasons to stick your neck out, even when it’s hard.
Making things better
The world, and your organisation specifically, is filled with things that aren’t very nice – things that hurt or frustrate or demotivate people, things that get in the way of pursuing a mission as successfully as possible, things that undermine how you feel about the contribution you’re making. It’s simply not reasonable to think someone else is going to, or should, fix it all for us. If you’ve got the competence to know something is wrong, and ideas about how to make them better, then you’ve got to be part of the solution.
If I’ve learned anything about speaking up, it’s this; it’s not easy for anyone. There is no special personality trait, career level, or other magical factor that reduces the risks or discomfort of speaking up to zero. And there’s certainly nothing innate that makes us able to speak up skilfully; it’s simply about making a choice to move forward despite those risks, and potential pain, to play our part in trying to make things better, one step at a time.
Unsolved problems only get worse
We often give ourselves a pass from speaking up by telling ourselves that ‘It’s no big deal’ or ‘It will work itself out’. The problem is that this generally isn’t true. Unsolved problems usually just get bigger. Negative emotions get stronger. The consequences we’ll eventually face just grow. In the case of every recent major corporate scandal or disaster I’ve studied, the problem was known months or years before it eventually blew up publicly. In the interpersonal blow-ups I process with people, the problem has almost always evolved from a relatively minor irritation, that wasn’t directly addressed, to one that now jeopardises the relationship and other things.
As people look back on their lives, many are filled with regret – a psychological burden that can be as painful as the physical toils of aging. While you may think you’ll regret the consequences of being honest or bold, research suggests you’re actually far more likely, in the long run, to regret your inaction. It’s the ‘I should have’ regrets that endure, probably because our rationalisations for not stepping up simply sound less and less convincing to ourselves as time passes.
Let me be clear, I’m not issuing a call to organisational isolation or martyrdom. As I discuss in my new book, Choosing Courage, speaking up every single time you could isn’t likely to lead to maximum success. It’s smart to work on establishing your credibility before expecting people to trust what you say, and to choose your issues and timing wisely.
It’s also wise to develop strategies for managing both the message and the emotions – yours and others’- when you do speak. There are lots of things you can, and should, do to become competently courageous, thereby increasing the likelihood you’ll accomplish your objectives, and decreasing the odds of negative personal consequences.
How, exactly, do you master the tools and tactics that help a person speak up more successfully? The same way you learn any other skill – you practice.