Speaking Up at Work: 3 Steps to Make it Easier

No matter what your leadership role, your team has had one of those meetings. Talks are tense and exhausting. “Strategizing next steps” is just recycling outdated ideas. Underneath it all is that nagging feeling, “I should say something. I should really say something.” But you grit your teeth and exhale. There’s a flash of relief  immediately replaced by irritation. As long as you keep silent nothing changes. But how do you speak up effectively, without just adding to the noise?

The Problem with Silence

You’re not alone in this struggle. In a survey of 6,000 employees at a major tech company, MIT researchers asked team members how often they speak up about 15 of the most common workplace issues. They found: 

  • 47.1% speak up on 5 work-related topics at most.
  • Only 13.6% spoke up about over 10 topics at work.
  • 17.5% of employees surveyed don’t speak up at all.


Every day, in every field, at every level of leadership, people want to tell teammates what’s on their mind, but disengage instead. What’s the big deal? After all, silence preserves us from discomfort and risk. But more often, it’s a sign of deeper issues in a company culture. Why?

  • Silence is compliance with situations we find frustrating, ineffective, or unjust.
  • Keeping silent impedes change and innovation. 

Change is natural and necessary in any thriving workplace, and speaking up is the critical first step toward growth. Here’s what we recommend making it easier to speak up at work.  

3 Mindset Shifts to Making Speaking Up Easier

      1. Cultivate Self-Awareness

You are the only person whose words, actions, and responses you can control. Cultivating self-awareness is essential to speaking up. The clearer your understanding of your motivations, your needs, and your goals, the less likely you’ll be to feel uncertain about what you want to say to your teammates if something needs to change. 


If that seems too nebulous, think of practicing self-awareness as taking an inventory by asking questions like:

  • How am I feeling about what’s going on with my team/in my workplace?
  • Is something impeding my progress and keeping me from reaching my goals?
  • What needs to change in order for me to thrive and succeed?


When you establish a pattern of self-aware thought and response, you’ll notice greater clarity and confidence in your planning and communication. 


      2. Commit to Your Values


Think of the most inspiring speeches you’ve ever heard: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malala Yousefzai, Greta Thunberg, and countless others. History’s greatest communicators know that their words are inexorably tied to their values, so they commit to stating those values clearly and repeatedly until change is affected.


Speaking up isn’t just having hard conversations: it’s a way of honoring your commitment to your values. When that happens, moving beyond the initial discomfort is easier, because you’re motivated by the outcome of the conversation. Let’s say you notice a teammate being treated unfairly. Yes, it will likely be uncomfortable to discuss that situation with the leadership team. But what matters more, your feelings at that moment, or the impact of greater safety for your co-workers? Reframing challenging talks in terms of your values might look like:


  • Thinking of what you have to gain from speaking up
  • Visualizing long-term outcomes rather than momentary challenges
  • Affirming the importance of honesty and integrity 


Leading with your values is a must. Effective communication helps you reach that goal.


      3. Come from a Place of Trust 


In The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni, highlights trust as foundational to positive change in the workplace: “Trust is about vulnerability, team members who trust one another learn to be comfortable being open, even exposed, to one another around their failures, weaknesses, even fears.” Leaders who model open communication are effectively modeling trust. When you’re open with your team, it shows you trust them, which makes it easier for them to trust you and communicate openly with you. 


You’re having challenging conversations because you want to find healthy, workable solutions that lead to growth and enrichment. Your teammates want to help one another achieve this, and they need to feel safe in order to do that. Communicating clearly, from a place of trust, makes that empathy possible. And an empathic team works together much more effectively than one plagued by silence, fear, and suspicion.  

The Bottom Line: Speaking Up is Worth It

Communication is hard, But it’s not an innate ability some have and others don’t. It’s a skill you can develop, strengthen, and refine with time. What kind of communicator do you want to be this quarter? By this time next year? Making these commitments to your growth, and getting the support you need to be a better communicator, will only help you and your team as you face challenges and celebrate wins together.


For Further Reading:

  1. Gaskell, Adi. “Why People Don’t Always Speak Up at Work”, Forbes, March 2021. 
  2. Swords, Charley. “Why Self-Awareness is Crucial in your Communications”, LinkedIn, June 2019.
  3. Detart, James and Edmonson, Amy. “Why Employees are Afraid to Speak”, Harvard Business Review, May 2007. 



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Effective communication is critical to the entire organization. When your people enhance communication skills, they can:

  • Listen to understand
  • Have direct and open discussions and give valuable feedback
  • Include others before developing a plan of action

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