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  • Zarmina Penner

The Trouble with Speaking Up

Updated: Oct 14

"Should I speak up when I feel strongly about a topic? I am not sure. It doesn't feel right." Each time the question is asked, my answer is the same: "Yes, but it depends on when and how."

Let's break this issue down because, in general, it is good to speak up.

An issue (or conflict) is whatever keeps you pre-occupied in your mind and makes you feel powerless because you are unsure about what to do. In this case, it is about speaking up or not. Stuck in limbo is not a comfortable state of mind.


The generic solution to any issue is this: We have to figure out a way of getting our power back and take suitable intentional action. In this case, it is about the power of knowing when to say what and how.

I like to break down issues using a mental tool I have created, which I call: Stop-1-2-3.

Stop means if the issue triggers you, don't shoot from the hip at whatever or whoever is "triggering" you. Stop. Come up with a socially acceptable neutral response beforehand or remain silent. Once we are pre-occupied and fixated on a problem, it tends to pop up everywhere. So the first step is to find an excellent way to respond to such triggers. Be prepared. When in doubt, do nothing.

Step 1 wants you to look at yourself and how you contribute to the problem. Step 2 wants you to analyze how your context contributes to it. And lastly, Step 3 wants you to look at the other person who might be triggering you. What are they thinking?


Each time you are in a management meeting, you tend to speak up openly, sharing your piece of mind. Maybe about unfairness, inequality, lack of engagement and team spirit, or some "elephant in the room" that is apparent to you, but others seem to be ignoring.

Every time you feel the strongest impulse to speak up. You get emotional, and then words shoot out of your mouth. After an awkward pause, others look away, pretend they are busy, or just silently watch what happens. Each time the leader nods and smiles at you, but then quickly moves on to other topics. You sit there, feeling strange. What is happening? Why don't others speak up too? What is wrong with me?

We have all been there, haven't we?

Let's analyze:

Step 1) You: Here are some potential reasons why you speak up:

  • You value truth, authenticity, trust, and openness. You want to be true to your values and be a role model. It's your personality.

  • You think the issue is not a big deal, and a neutral in-depth open discussion would do wonders. You want to help.

  • You tend to overshare, especially when stressed. You open your mouth and talk without gauging the level of trust in the room at that moment.

  • You tend to want to stand out from the crowd and maybe impress others by throwing yourself into the "lion's den" to demonstrate true bravery.

  • You like to talk and listen to yourself talk.

  • You are critical of the leader's management style and trying to prove your point or worth by competing for the leading role.

Step 2) The Context

  • The organizational culture is, in this case, a contributor for sure. The top 5-10 people in organizations embody the culture. Which level of openness do they demonstrate consistently? How are they role-modeling for you to behave?

  • How are sensitive topics handled in general in the company? Are open discussions allowed only in one-on-ones?

  • Who are the heroes of this organization? Where they go-getters and whistle-blowers or those who say less and stay in line? Listen to the stories.

  • How sensitive and avoidant is the organization? Do people prefer to look away when embarrassed or emotional?

Step 3) The Other

  • Is the other person, the leader in this case, triggering you at all? Or are you projecting?

  • How do they deal with conflicts usually?

  • What is their style of management? What do they value?

  • Could there be something behind the scenes creating stress and moving the leader to be avoidant, not wanting to deal with more?

Be brutally honest to yourself.


So how do we get our power back and resolve this particular conflict?

Let's say you have good motives and are an open kind of person, not out to impress but to help, but you do tend to speak up much too often. For whatever reason, let's say your organization ranks low on openness, especially when it comes to controversial and emotional topics.


Learn to read the culture and follow the lead. As long as you are part of the organization, it's healthy to do so. Listening to your gut goes without saying. That is a pre-requisite of organizational life. If your gut instinct says speak, do so, but don't regret it. Rather than speaking up impulsively and regretting afterward, revert to doodling to distract yourself from your impulse. Rather than speaking up and regretting it later, prepare a one-pager concerning the issue after the meeting. Talk with the leader, one-on-one. Share your analysis and potential solutions. Then let it be. Now it's up to them. If they ask you to speak about it next time, then do so. Otherwise, you are done.


Being critical at the cost of others is not the way to go. Instead, work on yourself. Get to know and manage yourself and your impulses. Be professional—master the art of being a productive meeting participant. If you are genuinely passionate about the subject, try getting the mandate to address it formally. You being professional means speaking up but in a measured, intentional and unapologetic way.

You being professional can also mean not speaking up at all. After your analysis, you may realize that that is the best approach, especially in highly political environments where speaking up can mean career suicide. Political, organizational contexts don't value openness. Accept it, and don't bang your head against the wall. You won't be able to change the culture singlehandedly.

However, you still have the power to choose where you want to spend time in the long run. You are not in jail. Choose an organizational culture that is in harmony with your values.

Ideally, the best solution for you (regarding any issue) honors your best interest first. Especially those who tend to overgive, please make a mental note to take better care of yourselves. The best solution is also in harmony with others' best interests within the limits of your mandate. Unless you are the top leader, you are not the top leader. (But if you are the leader, adapt the culture to higher openness if you want higher engagement rates in your organization.)


Peace of mind means that what you think, say, and do match up consistently, as a wise person once said. Nurturing your peace of mind is always beneficial. Speaking up is a part of that.

Image: cottonbro from Pexels

#leanin #communication #speakingup #managementmeetings

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Dr. Zarmina Penner, Steubenstrasse 3, D-65189 Wiesbaden