Knowing how to speak up for yourself at work is a critical career-building skill, particularly as you climb the ladder into leadership positions.

Do you ever feel trapped into saying ‘yes’ or worse still saying nothing at all when you’re served the raw end of the prawn? It’s not unusual, especially if you feel like you’re operating from a position of low power. No workplace wants nay-sayers but being a pushover won’t earn you respect either. The key is learning how to speak up for yourself in a way that makes you credible, likeable and builds your authority.

Why Do I Hesitate to Speak Up?

According to social psychologist, Adam Galinsky, most of us have a range of acceptable behavior. Sometimes, our decisions are too weak and we regret not speaking up. Other times, we go too far and we regret speaking up.

“When we stay within our range of acceptable behavior, we are rewarded. When we step outside our range, we get punished in a variety of ways; we get dismissed, demeaned or even ostracized (sic),” said Mr Galinsky.

Source: How to speak up for yourself  by Adam Galinsky

Galinsky says our perceived power influences our willingness to speak up. If you believe you have a low power-base, your range of acceptable behavior will be narrower than someone who perceives they have a high-power base. For example, a graduate will perceive they have less power than a senior executive therefore, the graduate avoids speaking up in meetings because they fear being ignored or worse damaging their personal brand in front of the boss.  This in turn creates what Galinsky calls the Low-Power Double Bind – you don’t speak up, therefore you go unnoticed and as a result, your powerbase remains small.  This bind works to keep you silent.

But your powerbase isn’t constant, it changes based on your situation.

“Our range isn’t fixed, it’s dynamic. It expands and it narrows based on the context. And there’s one thing that determines your range more than anything else, and that’s your power” said Mr Galinsky.

Source: How to speak up for yourself  by Adam Galinsky

There are two sides to feeling powerful:

  • Feeling powerful myself
  • Others seeing me as powerful

“When I feel powerful, I expand my own range. When others see me as powerful, they grant me an expanded range” said Mr Galinsky.

On the other side of the coin, people are social beings. Being liked and belonging in social circles is important so we fear behaving in a way that will jeopardise our social standing.

Why you won’t be respected for being the ‘yes’ person

Consciously or not, you teach people how to behave towards you. This is especially true as you move into leadership roles, when your team and other leaders are watching how you behave. Being obliging might make you popular but it doesn’t always earn you respect. In the wild wilderness of the workplace, creating professional boundaries is a way of marking your territory and letting others know about what you will and won’t tolerate.  It gives you an identity that frames how people treat you.

For example, if you are not invited to an important meeting and you don’t speak up, you teach others it’s okay to exclude you. Or if you’re railroaded into taking on more work when your plate is full, you teach others you can be pushed around.

Knowing how and when to take a confident stance will teach others what you expect and accept.

When Is the Right Time to Speak Up?

When can you assert yourself? When can you offer an opinion? When can you make an audacious ask?

When it’s necessary

Asking yourself “is it necessary to speak up about this issue?” is a good litmus test to decide when is the right time to speak up. If it’s a small, low impact issue and you have very little gain from speaking up then consider letting it slide. If you make noise about the small stuff, you jeopardise your chances of being listen to when the issue really matters.  But if it’s a big issue (in terms of ethics, cost, risk or impact to the business and team) then you must find your voice.  I wonder how many people named in the Banking Royal Commission now wish they spoke up?

When it’s your responsibility

Imagine you’re the General Manager of IT and a big website project hasn’t gone to plan. Some of it is your team’s fault, some of it isn’t. The Head of Marketing is furious and is ready to throw your whole team under a bus. Do you let the team take the heat or speak up? Of course, as the manager, you must speak up, it is your responsibility to be an advocate for your team.

When it’s true

Speaking up about an issue when your unclear about the facts is risky because you can wind up making an invalid argument, or worse looking silly. It’s always a good idea to do your research to find data or evidence to support your position before you turn the spotlight on an issue. Then you can speak up with accuracy and confidence.

How to speak up and stay professional

As I mentioned previously, workplaces are social circles, which makes speaking up risky. But these five techniques will help you maintain respectful relationships and your credibility.

1.       Walk a mile on someone else’s shoes

When you take the perspective of others and find out what they really want, you’re more likely to get what you want and maintain a respectful relationship. But it’s hard to do, especially in a crisis when there’s pressure and emotion.

Back to the earlier example; imagine that you’re the manager of an IT team and the Head of Marketing has publicly blamed your team for a website project flop.

Instead of having a shouting match in the corridor about who’s to blame, book a meeting. Use this time to listen to your colleague’s gripes and understand their concerns. Start by accepting and acknowledging your team’s errors and let marketing know you want to work together to get the project back on track. In a firm manner, also let the CMO know that publicly shaming your team saps their motivation and doesn’t encourage their best work. Ask them to raise any concerns about your team’s performance with you privately and assure her you will address them with your team.

When you take the other’s perspective it allows you to be assertive but still likeable.

2.       Advocate for others

One skill that women have shown to be particularly good at is advocating for others. Galinsky’s research showed women are more audacious in their requests and get just as much as men when they negotiate for their team. Through being an advocate, you discover and expand your own comfort zone and become more assertive. But it’s not always about helping others, sometimes you have to help yourself.

3.       Be flexible and provide choices

According to Adam Galinsky, you’re more likely to negotiate a win and still be likeable if you provide options.

“My research shows that when you give people a choice among options it lowers their defenses and they’re more likely to accept your offer,” said Mr Galinsky.

One of the oldest sales tricks in the book is to give a choice between two good deals. For example, if you’re negotiating for a new salary package with your boss, do your research. Find out the salary benchmarks from your role (many recruitment agencies provide this data for free) and ask HR what you can include in your salary package. Many companies offer additional annual leave or paid study. Put two alternatives on the negotiating table (and deliberately exclude the third alternative, no pay rise!).

Package 1 Package 2
+ 15% cash +10% cash
No extra leave 10 extra annual leave days
Study allowance $2,000 Study allowance of $5,000

This is a far more powerful position than saying “I deserve a pay rise” without any research or data to support your claim.

4.       Build Social Support

This approach can help if you need to catch the eye of senior managers to get ahead but don’t want to be seen as boastful.

Having a broad support network makes you feel more powerful. And when you feel more powerful, you are more likely to speak up for yourself.

There are two ways you can build social support at work:

  • Get others onside by advocating for them. It helps you expand your powerbase in your own eyes and the eyes of others.
  • Ask more powerful people in your workplace for advice on how to accelerate your career. It demonstrates humility and it helps build an ally from above.

Having good working relationships with peers and seniors will build your powerbase and help you find your voice.

5.       Play to your strengths and passion

When you play to your strengths and find your passion you give yourself permission to speak up and your enthusiasm becomes infectious.

If you feel you’re coming off a low power base, get some evidence about your strengths. This could be:

  • Results you’ve achieved listed against the responsibilities on your job description
  • Testimonials from customers, managers and colleagues about your work

Being passionate about your work will build your own perceived power and others will grant you permission to speak up.

Speaking up for yourself is a difficult but very necessary skill to learn if you want to step up in your career.  As a professional coach, I can help you build your personal authority and practice how to speak up for yourself at work. Book a career breakthrough session today and feel more powerful at work.

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