Sunday 3 March 2013

Courage to speak up when it really matters

As a child I was told by my elders to bite my tongue when talking to people in authority (as I had a penchant for speaking my mind). I was told that “I was not worldly wise!” and hence had not earned the right to do so. As I grew older and felt that I had earned the right to speak my mind I then realised that I had developed an innate habit of biting my tongue i.e. stopping myself from saying something that I really wanted to say at critical points when sitting in the presence of authority.

It took me some time to differentiate between biting my tongue (to avoid offending someone) and speaking up (to ensure that my point of view was heard). 

“Biting your tongue & swallowing your pride is a meal of humility. Though it may not be tasty to you, it is indeed healthy” -- T. Ruth Israel.

I decided that biting my tongue was to be used where ‘muffling my opinion’ would help in ensuring that I did not upset the other person in the heat of an argument or disagreement due to the emotional noise that may exist at the particular point in the conversation. However, speaking up is a different attribute as it requires courage (
ability to do something that you know is right or good even though it is dangerous, frightening or very difficult).

In the work context, I am focusing on our inability (on occasion) to speak up and show courage of conviction and belief because our nervousness or fear of some unknown causes us to step back and remain silent at the precise moment in a conversation or discussion when we should not remain silent.

How many times after a critical meeting have I seen attendees walk up to me and tell me that they wanted to introduce caution or add value to a conversation but did not have the courage to speak up as they were scared that their input would be ridiculed or ignored or might upset someone senior (a manager or executive) in the meeting. Surprisingly, there are managers and executives who have a habit of having their way and riding ‘rough-shod’ (or varying degrees of this) over people during meetings as either the outcome is already decided before the meeting was ever called or because such managers and executives suffer from a lack of psychological openness i.e. the inability to be receptive to new and different ideas while shutting or putting other people out or down
(Ram Charan).

So how does one go about developing courage to ensure that you can address managers and individuals who lack psychological openness?

The anwer lies in this simple quote from Mark Twain – “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear.” I could not have said it better. Courage is about your ability to master your fear. It is not about developing expertise to make fear disappear! The power to communicate without fear of ridicule or concern is within our grasp.

My input to all those reading this is that gathering the courage to speak up and outline your position with no fear of it being discarded or sidelined or ridiculed is an important skill. Keeping your thoughts inside is the biggest source of gossip and
resentment. Also realise that even if your input is discarded but the outcome later reminds others of your input (and implied caution) then surely that builds trust albeit slowly but I must acknowledge that there is an element of chance that you won’t be given credit for raising your voice earlier as by admitting that you were right some people are not mature enough to allow for the inference that they were wrong! 

Your voice is important as silence (the inverse of not speaking out!) is a critical driver behind weak outcomes of any decision making process. “All too often, behind failed products, broken processes, and mistaken decisions are people who chose to hold their tongues rather than to speak up” [
Is silence killing your company, HBR, Perlow & Williams]. 

Speaking without fear or speaking with courage would require you (as well as me!) to focus on a few key things.

Start with ensuring that you are speaking up for the right reasons. Do not speak up because you have to stoke someone’s ego or because you have to stoke you own
ego. True courage needs to be grounded in conviction and not on a desire to speak simply for the need to speak.

Be clear on what is it that you are sharing. Do not articulate your position (i.e. are you for or against something) but rather state your concern as an opinion. Let the recipient judge the opinion and not you. Are you
nervous when sharing your view? So be it. Technically, everyone is nervous but some have the ability to mask it much better than you do. Your opinion is exactly that an opinion. Position it as one version of the possibilities available. My own experience tells me that in any given room with a few people there is surely one person that would genuinely want to hear what you have to say or contribute.

Bennis, Goleman & O’Toole refer to a practical framework for assessing that we speak up for the right reasons. If your desire to speak up passes this simple test then you will know that the courage of speaking up will deliver the desired outcome if what you say: 

  • Is grounded in the truth
  • Is not based on spite or resentment
  • Is intended to protect innocents (do no harm to them)
  • Benefits others in the organisation and not only yourself
  • Has a chance to bring about positive change
  • Is the outcome of moral reflection
  • May lead to consequences (you can be wrong as well)

If I had to offer any advice to managers and executives who are seeking to see decisions being made and then executed would be to ask them to keep sycophants at bay; encourage principled contrarians and encourage your team to engage in decisive dialogue. Such dialogues have two critical aspects. First, they must involve a sincere search for answers, the ability to tolerate unpleasant truths and secondly, enable the ability to invite spontaneous input to capture a full range of views. Clearly this requires the manager/executive to create a culture of honesty, transparency, trust and accountability on how decisions are executed.

In closing, I wanted to share with you one of my favourite moments from the London Olympics (2012). It was the rendition by Emeli Sand—ź of “Read all about it”. The lyrics floored me and I offer the first para to you in good faith below and recommend that you listen (as well as read the lyrics on screen) in the video below in your search for the courage to speak up.
You've got the words to change a nation
But you're biting your tongue
You've spent a life time stuck in silence
Afraid you'll say something wrong
If no one ever hears it how we gonna learn your song?


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