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  • Writer's pictureThrive Inc.

Do You Speak Up to Power? Here's How You Can (and What You’re Missing When You Don’t)

There’s a cost when you don’t speak up to your boss.

There’s a cost when your people don’t speak up to you as the boss.

There’s always a cost when people won’t speak up to power. Just ask Boeing, Enron, or…

When we coach executives, leaders share their frustration with us in trying to get their teams to engage in real conversations on business issues. They encourage dialogue, but instead get crickets, silence, or head nod agreement. Here’s what some leaders have shared:

  • “I laid out my vision and no one said anything.”

  • “I don’t know if they don’t get it, or they don’t agree.”

  • “I’m wondering if I have the right people in the room.”

Because we often coach both the leader and their team, we also hear from those team members who are silent. They share the other side:

  • “I have to pick my battles.”

  • “If I say it can’t be done, I’m just going to hear I need to get on board.”

  • “It’s not safe to speak up in those meetings.”

  • “People who have spoken are no longer in the room.”

So, what is really going on here? It’s a two sided equation.

Leaders: What You May Be Doing to Create Silence

Leaders often say they want dialogue. It’s one thing to say you want people to speak up, but the true test is whether you, as a leader, are making your meetings conducive to people engaging.

Consider that you may be a part of the problem.

  • Do you have a favorite? Someone whom you trust and like to hear from? You may not even be aware how often you lean towards one person’s input.

  • When someone disagrees, do you tend to think, and may even say, “I don’t want to hear excuses.”

  • Have you already made the decision and haven’t acknowledged the firmness of your position?

  • Do you challenge your own boss and speak up often in his/her meetings? This may seem like an odd question. However, if you don’t speak up, ask yourself, “Why?” Explore your own reasons for not speaking up to someone in power.

Are your meetings set up for dialogue? Consider:

  • Is there time on the agenda built in to include a ‘real’ discussion or disagreement?

  • Do you have too many people in the meeting? Often leaders want to include more people thinking that will make communication better. It doesn’t, people are less likely to speak up if the audience is too big. The best size for team meeting that creates real dialogue is 6-10 people.

  • Is your meeting agenda a series of status reports? If so, the structure is not conducive to challenging ideas and getting into rich debate.

If you have answered “yes” to any of these questions, you and your team are likely paying a high cost in terms of your productivity, profit, innovation, and job satisfaction!

Team Members Reluctant to Speak Up to Power

Speaking up to power is challenging for most. However, the people who can, and do, speak up to power become the most influential people in the organization – no matter what level they are currently at.

So why don’t most people speak up? When we ask, we’ve heard:

  • My boss has a difficult style.

  • I don’t want to get fired.

  • It’s just not something you do.

Some of these reasons may have some validity – some. More likely, they are over-used excuses that keep you silent, stuck, and complaining about your boss to other people.

Imagine, if instead, you were:

· influencing your boss with your different point of view

· providing profound and helpful feedback

· slowing down the discussion to hear from an outlier in the group.

Consider that the real reason you don’t speak up is not your difficult boss, but your own negative limiting self-talk. This limiting thinking is reinforcing old stories and stopping you from taking a risk and stepping into your influence.

It’s robbing you of your impact in the organization.

One way you can test this theory is to start to tune into your limiting self-talk.

  • Track what you say to yourself when you have something you want to say to your boss but don’t.

  • Write down what your brain is telling you.

  • Try this for a week.

You’ll be amazed at the same stories that come up over and over again. I bet your negative self-talk isn’t that original or imaginative. Mine isn’t.

For example, if one of your persistent thoughts is: “I have to pick my battles.”

Maybe that’s true once in a while. What is likely more accurate is you may not know how to bring up a difficult topic. Or, it could be that your boss reminds you of someone you were challenged by earlier in your career.

These are solvable problems. Problems you can work on to make a different choice. Ones we often wind up coaching people through to help them find the courage to speak up to power.

When a client shifts their negative limited thinking, their entire experience of work shifts – for the better.

  • They take more chances.

  • They feel more satisfied.

  • They have more energy.

Something else to consider, if you’re hesitant to speak up to your boss, imagine it may be difficult for your direct reports to speak up to you. I can hear you right now saying, “No way. I’m easy to talk to!” Maybe, maybe not for someone who sees you in a position of authority. Think about it.

Make It Easier for Your People to Speak Up to You

To facilitate your people speaking up to you:

Build in more time for dialogue in meetings when making a decision. Think of the racecar analogy, “go slow around the curves so you can accelerate on the straightaways.” Rather than rigidly following the agenda, ask yourself and your team: “Is this an important conversation for us to continue? If we don’t make the time now, will we just come back to it again anyway?”

Prime the pump, meaning disagree with yourself to open the door to hear from them. “You might think I’m fixed on my position and don’t want to hear your opposing ideas, but I do.”

Track to your thinking when you are in the midst of a meeting and someone does speak up to you. See if you can catch yourself.

Don’t let your team miss out on having the debate, the dialogue. It’s worth it. If you need some support to make it happen, we specialize in helping leaders create teams that engage and create collective results. Let us help you, help them.

Speak up, it’s worth it!


Interested in seeing if we’d be a fit to coach with you and coach your team? Reach out to us for a brief chat or check out our Kickstart Your Team and our Executive Coaching options. We'd love to connect with you.

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