Are you speaking up as much as you’d like to at work? One 2018 study revealed that only one percent of employees felt “extremely confident” to share their concerns, and approximately 33 percent believe their organisational culture doesn’t support speaking up.
As leaders, our responsibility is to create cultures where everyone feels safe to speak up — regardless of rank or tenure — because only then can teams effectively and creatively solve problems. The belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking is known as “psychological safety,” the number one ingredient for creating a culture of confidence. In fact, when Google tried to figure out what differentiates a great Google team from just a good Google team, psychological safety was the number one contributor — more so than tenure, experience, or education.
There’s no special amount of experience that will suddenly make you worthy of sharing your ideas with the world
When we at NOBL talk to people about sharing their ideas and stories with their team and the wider world, we hear the same things, regardless of experience or sector:
- “I feel like I don’t know enough. I’m not interesting enough”
- “I don’t see myself as expert enough to give advice, mentor, or write”
- “I see so many incredible people out there, and I worry I will never be as good as them.”
- “Who am I to be talking about this?”
Your organisation, and the world at large, desperately need more voices, and different voices, if we want to make change — and that voice could absolutely be yours. In fact, your inexperience may even be a benefit. As product and strategy consultant Sara Wachter-Boettcher notes, it’s often harder to learn from people with tons of expertise, not easier.
Simple steps towards acting more confident
The confidence to speak up isn’t something you’re born with — it takes practice. Start small and go from there. Each little contribution adds gradually to your bank of confidence. The easiest way to begin is often by imitation. Watch online videos of confident public figures, or observe others in your team who are confident in a way that you connect with. Take notes and practice in the mirror at home.
During meetings, if putting your own idea or view across is too nerve-racking, begin by asking questions. This shows that you’re paying attention and you care. If your mind often goes blank in meetings, prepare some questions beforehand and write them down.
Finally, start and end your contribution with conviction. Avoid an apologetic “I’m sorry, but…” or “This is probably a silly question…” This weakens your message. Start proudly and strongly with, “I’d like to say…” or “It makes me think of…” Once you’ve said what you want to say, simply finish speaking. People will appreciate your message being succinct and clear.
Encouraging confidence in others
Learning to put yourself out there can be daunting while helping and praising others can feel much easier — so start building up your confidence by looking after your teammates. If someone is interrupted, say something to steer attention back to them. It can be something as simple as, “Kim, what were you going to say?”
When you become confident about speaking up for others, you’ll feel less nervous about speaking up for yourself. We’ve found the following suggestions are helpful for designing a culture where including yourself — and others — is the norm.
Build psychological safety through meetings
We not only recommend that our clients start every meeting with a check-in, we practice it ourselves. The next time you’re in a meeting, go around the room and ask everyone to respond in one or two sentences to the simple question, “what are you bringing with you today?”
This simple activity creates space to reflect and invites everyone to take a few minutes to fully arrive in the room while providing a structure for all to contribute. (It also helps contain the chit-chat that happens at the head of meetings!)
In particular, it allows for:
- Cognitive offloading. Everyone’s schedules are packed, and it’s easy to be distracted by your running to-do list. Paradoxically, letting people know what’s on your mind can help you put it aside and focus on the work at hand.
- Participation priming. If you want everyone to feel comfortable speaking up, get them talking early. By having everyone contribute, even with a short sentence or two, you encourage this behaviour.
- Humanising. Lastly, sharing information about your state of mind or your personal life helps people empathise better — if they receive a short answer, for instance, they might remember that their colleague is exhausted because their child was up late, not because they’re being intentionally curt. Over time, this relationship-building creates psychological safety on your team.
Once you’re feeling more comfortable with the ritual, you can discover other questions with this check-in generator.
Role model fallibility and curiosity
Fear of making a mistake is one of the biggest barriers to people participating. One of the best ways to reduce fear, then, is to demonstrate vulnerability and share failings. At Pixar Animation Studios, for instance, new hires are often hesitant to question the status quo, given the company’s track record of hit movies and the brilliant work of those who have been there for years. To combat that tendency, Ed Catmull, the co-founder and president, makes a point of talking about times when Pixar has made bad choices. Like all other organisations, he says, Pixar is not perfect, and it needs fresh eyes to spot opportunities for improvement.
Another easy way to encourage people to speak their mind is to speak last. When leaders withhold their own opinion until the end of a group discussion about how to approach a problem, team members are likely to suggest a wider array of alternative solutions than if the leader had chimed in first.
From fear to freedom
“Companies need to do two basic things: listen more and speak up faster.” — David Maxfield
People will surprise you in ordinary yet extraordinary ways — often all they need is the encouragement to speak up. By taking small actions and modelling the appropriate behaviour, you can build a culture of confidence, so that everyone on your team feels they have the opportunity to contribute.