Strategy & LeadershipHR Hacks: Five keys to speaking up effectively

HR Hacks: Five keys to speaking up effectively

Professor Megan Reitz, Hult International Business School, gives HR professionals five tools for making their voice heard in business.

Think about something that you could speak up about at work right now.

It might seem rather benign – perhaps an idea about how to do something more efficiently. Or it might feel a little risky – some feedback for a colleague whose behaviour is having negative consequences. Or it might be about malpractice. It could even be a matter of life or death.

Wherever you are on this spectrum, if you’re thinking about speaking up, it pays to consider five key questions that we uncovered through our years of research, described in our new book ‘Speak Up; Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard’ (FT Publishing 2019). We call these questions the TRUTH framework. Working through them carefully can help you speak up – and be heard:

  1. How much do you TRUST the value of your opinion?

Many of us suffer from imposter syndrome – a nagging voice that tells us that we are about to be found out any minute and we’ll never succeed in speaking up as well as others would. A partner-in-crime of the imposter voice is the inner critic who tell us that we really aren’t very good at this sort of thing, we should be better and that we’re bound to muck it up. The volume control on these voices can get out of hand. We need to be able to see the voices for what they are – just voices and not reality. We must choose, on occasion, to trust ourselves.

  1. What are the RISKS involved when you speak up?

Our research shows the top two reasons we are afraid to speak up are firstly, we worry that we will be perceived negatively and secondly, we don’t want to upset the other person. We want to belong and be accepted and we often fear speaking up will lead to being rejected. Although that may be a valid concern, too often we catastrophise. Too often we forget to also deeply consider the risks of NOT speaking up. We can feel safer if we speak up with others – the #MeToo campaign is a good example. And advice from coaches, mentors and friends can help us to consider, plan, rehearse and mitigate the risks.

  1. Do you UNDERSTAND the politics at play?

Speaking up is political in that it is likely to affect other people’s personal agendas. So, before you speak up, it is wise to consider whose toes you might be stepping on. Who has an interest in this? Who is affected by what you have to say? How powerful are these individuals? Who are their allies? It may be more useful to see your organization as a system or web of political influence rather than hierarchical pyramids. Job titles are one thing – but personality and social links (which might stretch outside the organisation) count for a lot and we would do well to understand them so that we can speak up more effectively.

  1. Are you aware of the TITLES and labels others attach to you and you attach to others – and how that shapes whether and how you speak up?

We label ourselves and others all the time. Gender, job title, race, age and a host of other things. These labels carry with them, depending on the context, differing expectations and assumptions around status and authority. For example, the label ‘HR’ in one organisation can equate to ‘admin and support service’, whilst in another it means ‘people strategy, and talent’. These assumptions then affect whether we feel we have the right to speak up and the confidence we will be listened to. So, what labels do you apply to yourself and those people around you? How do these labels serve you and inhibit you?

  1. Do you know HOW to choose the right words at the right time in the right place?

You might have something to say, but knowing how to say it in a way that lands requires us to consider ‘5Ws’: Who is the best person to speak to, Why do we need to say something, What verbal and body language is appropriate, When and Where should we say it? A Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company we interviewed was aghast at how little we seem to rehearse before we speak up with something important in the workplace.

Our decisions to speak up – or stay silent – are phenomenally important. They affect our own success at work, our colleagues’ and, in many cases, have far wider ramifications. Using the TRUTH framework, what could you speak up about right now?

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