I received an email from a reader, Lexi, who is concerned about a new budget process being implemented in her department at work. She felt there were redundant steps in the new budget process that will slow down the approval of new projects. Lexi feels she needs to speak up before work gets delayed. However, she is not sure if that is a good idea, or how to go about doing it.
I will never forget the first time I had to speak up to a manager. He gave very inconsistent guidance that resulted in a lot of work and not a lot of progress. I don’t think he had bad intentions; he just didn’t realize he gave me direction before he had time to process information. As a result, I called him “Mr. Erratic”. When I did speak up to him, things got better and he became my favorite manager.
It can be intimidating to speak up to someone in a more senior position, or even to a peer who has been at the organization longer. There can be many risks associated with doing it.
Oh no! What are the risks if you speak up??
Well, yes. If you are sharing concerns about a decision a leader made or sharing a frustration about the work environment, you can come off as a negative person, a complainer or, worse, you can offend the leaders.
In fact, I know many people who my peers and I, as a leadership team, brand as “negative.” They often have good perspective and are often right. However, the way in which they express their feelings makes them seem negative and that they are just complaining.
Honestly, we as a leadership team tend to disregard their feedback (even though they make good points). I’m not proud of this, but it is hard to tease out productive feedback when someone’s tone and uses negative or offensive words. There are things that managers should do in this situation to extract productive information (and I can share that in a different post.)
So, in summary, you have to be careful and speak up appropriately.
How do you do that?!
Well, let me help….
Mrs. Type A’s tips on how to speak up at work
1: Ask “how may we” questions
It’s probably safe to assume that any decision or action your leaders took, that they did so thinking it was the best thing for the business and it’s people. I’ve certainly made a lot of regrettable decisions as a leader over the years. Looking back, I do wish I could change some.
However, at the time, I really did think I did the right thing based on what I knew at the time. I don’t know any of my peers would make a decision to intentionally cause negative effects.
In those moments, being told directly (or indirectly) that I was doing something undesirable may have been offensive to me; after all, I was convinced I was doing the right thing.
Instead, I would have appreciated productive feedback that helped me understand what I didn’t know at the time.
How can you do that?
The best way to raise an issue to your leadership is to ask a question. So, let’s take Lexi’s example in which her Department Head is implementing a new budgeting process that has redundant steps and will slow down projects. She has decided to talk to him about it. Here is what I would tell her:
Don’t say: “This new budgeting process is cumbersome and has too many steps.”
I think you can say something like this if you have the evidence of the business impact (see below). But, if not, this could be seen as just complaining.
Instead, say this: “How may we ensure that the steps are not redundant before this process gets implemented?”
Now, you’re more or less communicating the same thing (i.e., this budgeting process isn’t going to work). But the “how may we” question appears more productive, as if you are trying to move the process forward vs. trying to stop it.
It’s subtle, but an important nuance that I believe will lead to more productive outcomes.
2. Focus on issue and impact (not your feelings)
While #1 above may relate to speaking up before something is frustrating, many times we realize the need to speak up only after we are already at a point of anger and frustration. In this situation, it may be really tempting to tell your boss how much they have wronged you.
I certainly can get angry myself from time to time. I would encourage you to express those feelings…..outside of work. Yes, they are normal human feelings. But, it’s not productive to have highly emotional and accusatory discussions at work. The more you focus on having your work conversations move issues forward, the better off you will do.
So, I suggest sharing your perspective in terms of the issue and business impact. Do not talk about how upset or angry you are. For example, let’s go back to Lexi’s example of a department head implementing a cumbersome process. If the process were already implemented when the pain points were discovered, here is what I’d suggest Lexi say to the Department Head:
Don’t say: “The budgeting process is awful and it takes too long.”
Instead, say this: “The new budgeting process has redundant steps that results in adding 2 weeks to approval. As a result, 5 of my projects are delayed.”
This is a great first step, but you will need to add to this sentence, which brings me to Tip #3….
3. Ask directly for what you need
If you are going to raise an issue, I suggest you have a proposed resolution. Otherwise, it looks like you are just complaining. I can tell you that, as a manager, I may not have the same understanding of the specific issue or process. Honestly, if there is a budget approval process, I may never interact with it (my direct reports do). So, if it’s broken, I need you to tell me what I need to do.
How can you do that?
So, for the example above in which the new budget process is cumbersome, I suggest you follow up by saying:
“Could you forward a draft email I typed up to the Head of Finance requesting he eliminate the redundant steps?”
I cannot imagine a situation in which any leader would say “no” to that. You’ve made it clear and easy for them, and he/she will appreciate you for it.
4. If you’re not sure what to say, do some “message testing”
Sometimes how to express your feelings productively is very hard. If you’re very angry, or the topic is tough to address, you may want to “test” your messages with trusted colleagues. A lot of people will test their thinking on loved ones, such as a spouse or friend. For this to work, the person you are testing your messages with needs to have a very good grasp of your company’s culture and the manager’s personality.
Once you found that person, you could explain your situation and share how you were planning to address it. Hopefully your colleague can help you understand how the tone and wording may come off in your company’s culture and for the leader you are talking to.
5. Consider the venue
Some things may be better in private, perhaps in your boss’ office. One thing I often suggest is taking a walk to discuss a critical issue. “Walk and talks” are often over-looked as a powerful communication venue. I like to do them for crucial conversations for 1 simple reason: you are side by side. Often when talking people face each other and it can feel oppositional. Walking side-by-side is a subtle, but meaningful sense that you are “together” vs. opposed.
And, above all else, just be really careful when bringing things up in a large venue. No one wants to be called out in front of a room full of people.
In conclusion, I would say all of these tips circle around the same point: always focus on solving the problem, not just pointing out. If you do that, then you will do just fine when you speak up.
What has your experience been when you speak up? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
If you found this post helpful, you may also like:
- How to Overcome the 5 Biggest Career Killers
- Are bad bosses better than good ones?
- How to Give Feedback to Your Boss
If you want an another external opinion on speaking up, I found this Monster.com article helpful: https://www.monster.com/career-advice/article/how-to-get-over-fear-speaking-up-at-work
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