How to Speak Up at Work


Last weekend I attended the Wonder Women Tech conference in Long Beach. One of the most interesting talks for me was given by Barbie Brewer, Chief Culture Officer at Gitlab, Inc., who explained that one her biggest challenges is encouraging the thousands of Gitlab’s remote employees to “speak up,” or assert their boundaries when speech, behavior, or expectations were not ok with them. Importantly, she also revealed that their willingness to do so was one of the most significant factors in creating a positive and inclusive work culture.

Her talk got me thinking about the reasons why speaking up may be so hard for us individually, despite the obvious advantages to us collectively.

One big reason I believe many of us have difficulty setting healthy boundaries at work is that we fear losing our job, being passed up for promotion, damaging a professional relationship, or some other negative consequence. While these fears might sometimes be legitimate, they are often exaggerated. How can we evaluate our hesitation with more objectivity and speak up when it’s important, even though we may still feel nervous?

1. Acknowledging the Insight

The first part of speaking up comes way before the speaking itself. It’s when you realize that you feel overextended, uncomfortable, or otherwise in conflict with requests or behavior in your work environment. Or, perhaps you see overlooked risk factors in a project that need to be pointed out, analyzed, or accounted for. Whether the circumstances relate to professional interactions, work load or responsibilities, or the safety and security of a project or campaign, the moment when you realize something is wrong may be the same instant you begin to feel anxious. These feelings, somewhere on the spectrum between concern and terror, can make us forget the observation that sparked them in the first place, which is that something is not right.

Remembering that the problem is outside of you (and not, by definition, you) may help you move through hesitation. If you’re still not sure, ask yourself, “If I were guaranteed no negative consequences, what would I say or what action would I take?”

2. Naming the Fear

When we explore fears and anxieties, we enter territory that has its own logic, and not the everyday, rational logic we are used to. That’s because when we are feeling anxious, we’re generally not using our brains fully. Fear and anxiety are manifestations of our fight/flight/freeze survival mechanism, and when it is triggered, a hormone called cortisol floods the brain and shuts down some of its higher reasoning. The more cortisol, the more anxiety and the less logical reasoning.

If you’re having difficulty speaking up about something that feels important, ask yourself: “What, precisely, is my concern or fear?” Fill in the blanks in this sentence: “I am afraid that if I speak up about [x], then [y] will happen.” Be open to whatever the answer may be, however improbable or “irrational.”

3. Evaluating the Fear

Naming the fear may already do much to dispel it. When we write down our concerns on paper or speak them out loud, it makes it easier for the thinking brain to see that its “logic” is not really logical. Imagine your concern was, “If I tell everyone that this vendor can’t actually meet our needs, then everyone will hate me because we’ll need to spend extra time finding a new one.” Or, how about this one, “If I tell my boss I don’t have time to do this extra report, I’ll be fired.” Just writing them down might make them start to seem less likely. What’s missing from the perspective that is writing these statements? What other way might we look at the same situation?

Once you’ve expanded your way of seeing the situation, ask yourself, “How much of my hesitation is based on real risk? (0-100%)” 

4. Considering Costs & Benefits

Often, when anxiety or fear appears, it removes part of the scene from view, like pulling a curtain halfway across the stage. We literally fail to see whole parts of the situation, like what we or others may lose if we don’t speak up, or what potential benefits may come to us or to others through our courageous action. In the first example above, we may create a delay by taking an extra week to find a new vendor, but if we stay silent and just go with the old one, they may not come through and sabotage the entire project, which is far costlier. In the second situation, which is more valuable to your boss, you saying yes and not delivering on your work, or you being up front with your limitations and giving her the option to get the report done in another way?

Let’s try a harder example. Let’s say you’ve noticed that in the weekly Friday meeting, one of your colleagues tends to interrupt you and others around the table. You might feel hesitant to say something, fearing it may create discomfort for everyone involved. But what is the cost of not saying anything? Fewer ideas are shared, debate is curtailed, and decisions are not as informed as they could be. Furthermore, at least some members of the team likely already feel uncomfortable, including you, which further diminishes creativity and engagement. The group, as a whole, is losing. Meanwhile, your colleague may not even realize what is happening. When viewed in this way, do you feel differently about the idea of speaking up?

In any situation you are in, first ask yourself this question: “What are the current costs to me, either emotionally, practically, or otherwise, of tolerating this situation as it is?” And then, ask yourself a second question: “What benefits might this change bring to me, my company, or others I work with?”

5. Acting from your Values

Ultimately, you will evaluate decisions to speak up on a case by case basis. No one can tell you what the “right” thing to do is, but you can give yourself a powerful internal compass by deciding in advance what’s important to you about how you show up to work. Values such as honesty, clarity, and integrity can give you the courage to speak up about personal workload. Values such as dedication, commitment, and persistence may encourage you to speak out when project timelines are at risk. And values such as justice, equity, and inclusion may embolden you to stand up for unethical or unfair behavior or treatment regardless of the consequences. More and more, it’s becoming clear that strong values create successful business.

Ask yourself, “What are the values that are most important for you to connect with as you set healthy boundaries at work?”

What helps you to speak up when something needs to change? Please leave your stories in the comments.