Why Speaking Up at Work Is Hard—and 5 Ways to Do It Well

A person's hands gesturing in front of a computer on a table

It’s inherently uncomfortable to disagree.

But in the workplace, it can be especially tricky to navigate. There are plenty of workplace dynamics that lend itself to conflict, though research shows not many employees know how to handle it. 

Some people might find the need to speak up or disagree about job assignments or the strategy and direction of a project. Other employees might have feedback about workplace culture or how employees are treated across the organization. More seriously, there might be instances of harassment, bullying, or even discrimination in the workplace that might require HR and legal support. 

According to research from MIT Sloan, a majority of employees are not speaking up in a vast majority of 15 of the most common topics found in workplace disagreements. This survey cites that just 13.6% of employees speak up on more than 10 of the topics. Likewise, 17.5% of employees say they don’t speak up at all. If we slice the data a bit further and look at five or fewer of the most common topics found in workplace disagreements, 47.1% of employees say they speak up. 

The headline? It’s hard to speak up at work—and there’s a spectrum in which employees feel comfortable doing so. In this article, you’ll learn why speaking up or disagreeing at work is important—and how to do it well. 

The importance of speaking up 

There are plenty of benefits to speaking up in the workplace, though it requires some element of psychological safety and trust to do so. 

  • Offers diverse perspectives. Whether it’s a suggestion to approach a problem from a new angle or a point that might not yet have been considered, diverse perspectives lead to better business outcomes. 
  • Boosts creativity and innovation. Along the lines of increased diverse thinking, speaking up and disagreeing can also spur innovation and creativity. When employees have to think outside of the box to solve or approach a problem, it’s often teh solutions are out-of-the-box, too. 
  • Helps create trust and informed decision-making. If you’ve ever been in a meeting where someone respectfully disagrees, you’ve probably left that meeting with an element of trust and respect for the person who raised the issue. As with any sort of feedback, voicing disagreement can also be a sign of care. When an employee speaks up respectfully, it’s a sign they care about the health and growth of the team and the company. This also helps the team make better, more informed decisions. 
  • Promotes professional growth. Anything that’s hard is worth doing. In moments where you might feel uncomfortable, that’s often when career growth happens. 
  • Encourages open and respectful communication. When employees feel safe to speak up, it also leads to other benefits, including better communication. Communication in the workplace is paramount to any team or businesses’ success. 

5 steps to speaking up at work 

Now that you understand the benefits of speaking up at work, let’s get to the hard part: actually doing it. We’ve outlined five steps to speaking up or disagreeing at work. 

1. Observe and listen

Let’s say you’re in a meeting where one person has their heart set on approaching a problem in a certain way. Perhaps you have an idea that would save two days worth of time if the problem was approached differently.

While it might sound counterintuitive, let the person speak. Observe and listen—and perhaps, make note of the key points that the person is bringing up. Just as you’d like someone to give you their full attention, it’s important to start with this trust and respect from the start so that when it’s your turn to talk, you have their full attention, too.

2. Ask questions and practice curiosity

Sometimes, merely asking questions can help change a person’s mind or spur reflection. As you’re observing and listening, jot down questions you may have. For example, if there’s a person who might be stubbornly set on one way of doing things, dig into the why. Often, when people are forced to reflect and answer questions, they might already be opening themselves up to thinking about a problem or solution differently.

3. Prepare yourself mentally.

Take a deep breath. Gather your thoughts. Perhaps write down a list in your planner or reflection journal that you want to make sure you get across. Keep in mind your desired outcome and intent of speaking up in the first place. Lead with empathy, care, and respect. 

4. Speak confidently

You know that moment where you voice feels like it’s shaking from having to voice an uncomfortable thought? Yeah, we’ve all been there.

As much as you can control it, speak confidently. You might even address the elephant in the room: “I know this might be different from what people are thinking, but I’d like to propose a new thought about how to approach XYZ.”

You can also be vulnerable in how you’re feeling. “This is uncomfortable for me to bring up but I think it’s important. I’d like to talk about XYZ and want to make sure this thought gets voiced.”

5. Reflect on how it went

Phew, you spoke up. Maybe you disagreed with a co-worker about how to solve a key problem in a project. Or maybe you spoke up when a colleague was continuously interrupted in a meeting. Or maybe you corrected someone when they misgendered a co-worker unknowingly.

Whatever the situation, take some time to audit how it went. Use this time to think through your lessons learned, and what you think went well. You can also identify areas of opportunity for next time—because chances are, there will be another situation where you need to speak your mind.

Written by Madeline Miles

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