Minorities in STEM

To Speak or Not to Speak: Taking the Risk of Speaking Up

People decide to speak up about a new idea or a problem that needs attention only after balancing the risks of doing so. There are actually many factors influencing when and howa someone decides to become a voice for change.
— By Debra Jenkins

Truly innovative companies have a culture that invites new ideas from all employees at every level – from the CEO to the frontline staff member. It is a culture that is not easy to create. People are naturally risk adverse, and speaking up about a new idea or commenting on someone else’s idea is risky. The typical thought process runs through the positive and negative possibilities of presenting a new idea that might be tossed out as unworkable or triggering defensive behavior in someone else when speaking up about someone else’s idea. A failure to speak up is usually due to the risk of personal harm. Communication is a social behavior and the risk assessment is really an evaluation of the level of social threat that exists. “What if people think my idea is ridiculous?” or “I am really uneasy and anxious about the other person’s reactions to my comments concerning their idea.” It adds up to silence, meaning great ideas are never expressed and problems with an idea are not identified until a project fails.

Speaking Along a Continuum
The NeuroLeadership Institute says there is science behind whether people speak up along a “speaking up continuum.” The continuum has three main points which are sharing personal ideas, questioning another person’s ideas, and challenging another person’s behaviors. These acts of speaking up are highlighted because moving along the continuum increases the potential for threat. At step one, a speaker is managing his/her own threats. Moving from step one to step two, the person speaking up is assessing the threat in someone else, and from step two to three behavior reflects more of who the person feels he or she is rather than ideas.

To encourage people to not be silent, leaders should ensure there are no repercussions for making suggestions that are implemented and fail, and frame questions in a way that encourages people to speak candidly.
For example, the continued struggle to add diversity in the STEM industry has led to minority employees who must learn to speak up while recognizing the risks of evoking prejudice or solidifying bias in the minds of others who are not open to creative ideas emanating from a unique perspective and life experiences. It can feel like a major setback to the diverse person who is striving for a sense of belonging.

One strategy proposed by the NeuroLeadership Institute is for the speaker to use if-then planning to manage the threat. The speaker switches from a pragmatic lens to a moral lens. This means moving from the easy thing to do to the right thing to do. This strategy assumes pre-planning is possible though. For example, “If my team mentions a new technology during a team meeting, then I will bring up my idea.”

Accepting the Risk
A key contributor to minimizing the risk of speaking up is to create a culture of speaking up. This is a matter of creating a safe environment. People start worrying about sharing ideas because they are worried about personal consequences. An organization with a culture of speaking up is defined as one in which people at all levels of the organization are encouraged to take the risk of sharing ideas, no matter how outrageous they may appear. In many organizations, new ideas are expected to flow from leaders and the R&D function, but some of the best and innovative ideas are developed by non-management. They are just afraid of rocking the boat, getting laughed at, or put in their place, i.e. that’s not the way we do things. Kotter International recommends creating informal diverse cross-section employee networks that are encouraged to generate and try out new ideas and concepts. Leaders must also encourage and empower people to speak up, but they must be willing to let go of their absolute control and let engaged and knowledgeable employees take risks.

An interesting take on this topic emerged from research conducted by Michael Parke and Elad N. Sherf, published in the Academy of Management Journal. Organizational leaders assume that speaking up is the same as keeping silent. Therefore, if leaders encourage people to speak up and share their ideas, the assumption is that no employee will remain silent when they have an idea to propose. The research conducted found that the extent to which a person speaks up with constructive ideas or work issues is independent of how often they intentionally withhold ideas through silence. Instead, people will speak up if they believe their contribution will have an impact on the organization, and they will be rewarded for contributing the idea (voice). On the other hand, when people remain silent, it is because they fear repercussions like getting shunned (silence).

Once again, it goes back to building a speaking up culture in which people feel psychological safety for sharing ideas or problems. Parke and Sherf recommends leaders ask people to come up with ideas to share, demonstrate the employee’s voice was heard (even if the idea was not implemented), and follow up to let employees know what happened to the idea. To encourage people to not be silent, leaders should ensure there are no repercussions for making suggestions that are implemented and fail, and frame questions in a way that encourages people to speak candidly.

Ideas Rooted in Knowledge
Now consider the issue from the person who is afraid of challenging the status quo by vocalizing change ideas. It is one of the most difficult situations because it takes courage. One approach is to ask other people a lot of questions to ensure a complete understanding of why processes, procedures, and systems exist and operate in a certain manner. This establishes confidence the change idea is rooted in knowledge. If fearful of speaking up, find allies who support the idea and are excited about potential collaboration. Finally, be prepared for some skepticism, but do not take it personally. That is easier when remembering the natural fear reaction that leads to silence.

Speaking up may be difficult at times, but silence does not lead to innovation or needed change. Silence also creates a barrier to employee engagement because fear has no place in a productive accepting relationship. Silence also means some great ideas are never presented and never acted on, and in a STEM position that can make the difference between organizational failure vs success. Helping people overcome the natural fear that goes with presenting a new idea or shaking up the status quo requires effort on both sides – the employee and managers. Communication is sometimes not easy, but it is always important.