When to Speak Up

Speaking up Without Flipping out

When to Speak Up - Speaking up Without Flipping Out

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Do you instinctively know when to speak up?

Do you ever "engage your mouth before your brain" at work, without thinking about the consequences? Or do you prefer to take refuge in what researchers Frances J. Milliken and Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison call "the safe response of silence"?

When you speak up at work, you're expressing your opinion about something, such as your thoughts about a project, your feelings on a decision, or an idea of your own. There are some important things to think about when doing it. How and when you speak up can have a considerable impact on the success of your team and organization. It can also be a significant factor in how well you do your job and in shaping your professional reputation.

People are often reluctant to speak up at work, because they're worried about the reaction they'll get. In this article, we look at when speaking up makes sense, and how to do it in the most professional way.

Why It's Important to Speak up at Work

Contributing to the "greater good" is the key reason to speak up. Challenging, questioning, adding, or highlighting something can fuel discussion, and draw input and perspective from other people. It can bring about process improvements or strategic change, draw attention to minor issues before they become major ones, and resolve conflicts. It can boost your organization's collective knowledge, improve its creative efforts, and ultimately increase its financial success. It's also a great way to build your reputation as a highly effective team member.

Speaking up can be personally beneficial. It can make you feel truer to yourself, give you a sense of dignity, and help to build your self-confidence. You can demonstrate your commitment to, investment in, and support for your organization, and you can even inspire quieter colleagues to speak up next time, too.

Studies have shown that not speaking up can be detrimental. If you remain silent or are denied your input, your organization can't benefit from your knowledge, opinions or ideas. Although saying something difficult might seem risky, staying quiet can have dangerous consequences too, and it can mean that your manager sees you as a follower rather than a leader.


Check out our Book Insight into Black Box Thinking for examples of how remaining silent isn't always the safe option.

… And When It's Important to Be Cautious

So, if speaking up beats staying quiet, why doesn't everyone do it? Some people fear it. Researchers have found that this is because they worry about being received negatively. You could, for example, be seen as critical, offensive or argumentative.

People can also be put off by the risks of "whistleblowing," which can include facing disciplinary action or losing your job. They can also be discouraged in reserved cultures, where speaking up is seen as being disrespectful.


Whistleblowers may be protected from being dismissed, disciplined or subjected to any negative treatment in certain countries.

For example, in England, a whistleblower must first make a "qualified disclosure" to the employer or a third party to gain this protection. This includes information about criminal offenses, a breach of any legal obligation, a miscarriage of justice, danger to the health and safety of any individual, damage to the environment, or deliberate concealment of any of these issues. (This is subject to various conditions.)

Take appropriate legal advice before engaging in any whistleblowing activities, and follow the steps we discuss later in this article.

Knowing When to Speak…

Choosing the right time to speak up can be tricky, so here are some guiding examples to help you:

  • When your manager or colleague actively seeks ideas and opinions. Be a team player in brainstorming sessions and discussion groups. Keeping quiet and holding back can be seen as lack of interest or laziness.
  • When you're aware of unaccepting behavior. Nobody should be subjected to discrimination. If you witness or are victim to unaccepting behavior, speak up to your manager or HR department.
  • When you're aware of illegality. Reporting illegal behavior can be an obligation, particularly when you're a regulated professional and it concerns money laundering, or you're a company officer or director. (This may vary, depending on local law.)

    However, it can also be difficult and can have serious consequences, including being fired. Find out whether your company has a whistleblowing policy and, if it does, follow it, be certain of your facts, seek advice, and tread carefully. If there isn't a whistleblowing policy, raise issues internally, and, if it's serious and nothing's being done, only then seek advice externally. (As we said earlier, a good starting point is to talk to a lawyer.)


Consider keeping a record of related emails and meeting notes at the time of speaking up, so that you can access them again if you need to. Your HR department or employee support program may be able to help you work through issues that arise as a result of you speaking up. You could also enlist the support of a trusted colleague or union representative, if this is appropriate.

  • When it's the "right thing to do." Deciding whether something is "right" is subjective and depends on the context. Consider speaking up when you're worried about a team member, aware of a product defect, concerned for a brand's reputation, offended by inappropriate behavior, or if your own, or your organization's, core values are at stake (particularly if you are a company officer or director). When your motives are positive and you're worried about the consequences of staying quiet, you may instinctively know when to act. Again, though, be cautious, and follow the steps above.

… And When Not to

Here are some examples of when silence might be advisable:

  • If you're angry or emotional. Responding on the spur of the moment isn't always wise, because you can say things that you might regret later. Hold fire, collect your thoughts, and present them in a controlled way when you've calmed down.


Displaying anger can be powerful when speaking up, for example if things are going in the wrong direction and you need to stop them, or if you want to motivate people. However, it must be used for constructive reasons, and not simply for "letting off steam." Remember that team members who feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated, or discriminated against may be entitled to file a harassment case.

  • If you're planning to vent your opinions publicly. Questioning or criticizing your organization or colleagues in public can have major consequences and leave you open to charges of misconduct. You may be at risk of breaching your duty of confidentiality (for doctors and lawyers, for example) or leaking trade secrets, which can result in disciplinary procedures, dismissal and other actions.
  • Importantly, remember your duty of loyalty to your employer. Speaking up publicly isn't always appropriate or the right thing to do, and you may have a confidentiality clause in your employment contract that explicitly prevents this. Sometimes you have to show restraint and do what's asked of you, whether you agree with it or not. If doing so is too difficult, it could be time to look for a different workplace.

How to Speak up

Knowing what to say and how to say it is crucial, but speaking up to their manager or in front of their colleagues is within few people's comfort zones. To help, here are some tips. No one strategy fits all situations, so it's best to be flexible and use your best judgment.

Choose Your Moment

In some cultures, it's unacceptable to openly disagree with someone, particularly if they're in a position of authority. In this situation, you can ask for a private meeting to gauge his or her mood and adjust your approach accordingly. Alternatively, consider putting your thoughts forward in writing, so that you can take your time to collect and present them.

A good manager, however, will expect and welcome your opinion, even if it goes against his. Offer it, but don't overdo it. Repeating yourself can be irritating and unnecessary, and it will not strengthen your argument. Also, be careful not to put your manager "on the spot" or embarrass him.

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Prepare Your Facts…

Maximize your impact by preparing and rehearsing your point of view. Put forward your case as an opinion, instead of fact. Ask questions to encourage your manager or colleague to consider what you're saying and to stop you from coming across as a "know-it-all."

… Or Seize the Moment

You may not always have time to prepare, so there can often be a case for impromptu speaking. Take care when you have to think on your feet. Your emotions can be running high and your argument might not be fully formed, so speaking up can sometimes backfire – take a deep breath and check your attitude before you begin. Stay professional and constructive to give yourself the best chance of being received well.

Dealing With the Response

If you've prepared and pitched your comments appropriately, they're likely to be received positively. Even if your manager or colleague doesn't adopt your viewpoint, she may be impressed by your courage and creativity, and by your ability to accept her decision.

If your comments are received negatively, you probably have a choice to make. You can either accept the feedback or the situation and adapt, or, if you feel strongly, move on.

Key Points

Speaking up isn't always easy, but it's often worthwhile and rewarding. By contributing ideas, opinions and knowledge, you can boost your team and organization's performance and improve your own personal standing.

It is essential to speak appropriately within the context of the situation. There can be considerable risks in speaking up inappropriately, particularly where you want to raise serious issues. In these situations, cautious forethought and sound judgment are essential, as is a willingness to accept the response.


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