speaking up... does it work

Why Bother Speaking Up? It Won’t Help (and other Destructive Thinking)

Have you ever heard yourself saying those words?

“Why bother speaking up, it won’t do any good?” Or

“I’ve tried speaking up in the past, and no one cared.” Or

“Speaking up isn’t valued around here, I’ll just keep my head down and do my job.”

I hear you. It’s easy to let past experiences jade us into losing our voice.  It’s tempting to let our assumptions take over and persuade us that we already know the response. After all, we’ve seen this movie before and it doesn’t end well. And so the troublesome issue continues which validates our thinking: the other guy is a jerk who won’t listen.

Trust erodes further. So we speak up even less. Further convincing ourselves that it wouldn’t do any good.

Overcoming FOSU (Fear of Speaking Up)

I was facilitating a 2-day training on conflict and collaboration with an interesting mix of scientists and administrators.  About halfway through the program, Hope, a female administrator who is also a woman of color spoke up.

“I hear you. And I believe all these techniques will work for someone like Peter (a white male scientist with credentials and position power whose large stature made him hard to ignore), but they would never work for me.”

She’d ditched the diaper drama and apparently said exactly what everyone in the room had on their mind. We talked at length about her (and other participant’s) experiences–which were sad and compelling and real. Some of these stories had happened over a decade ago, with a peer or boss that was no longer around. And yet the fear of speaking up today was palpable. There was a whole lot of not speaking up going on, in a culture that desperately needed the truth.

There’s no question in my mind that results suffered, projects took longer and the science was jeopardized due to this FOSU (fear of speaking up).

Hope had spoken up to start a conversation. Game on.

And then Peter raised his hand.

“I hear you. I really do. I’ve got two stories of my own to share.

I also had been told several times by my boss to keep quiet, and not rock the boat. But I saw several errors that I knew would impact the timeline of our project once they were discovered. I took them to my boss who told me under no circumstance was I to say what was going on.

When the project got in trouble several months later, the department head, Joe, got involved and asked why I didn’t say anything. I told him I had. He coached me and said that at times like this, it’s so important to put the project ahead of self-protection. Joe reminded me of what was at stake.  And told me I can always come to him as needed. Which I do from time to time–only when absolutely necessary.

I still respect the chain of command most of the time.

My boss hates it when I go to Joe. But, I know have to do the right thing.

Then one day we were in a meeting with Joe. He told us how frustrated he was that people don’t speak up. And then he said, ‘Peter’s the only one.’ When he asked why, everyone just looked at him without saying a word.

Then my boss took me aside and said, ‘See, Joe wants you to stop speaking up! Now stop it!’ I was like, ‘What? Were we in the same meeting? And I insisted that we have a three- way conversation with Joe to check for understanding.

Joe was unequivocal. ‘I want Peter and everyone on this team to speak up. That’s the only way we will know what’s ever going on.'”

Okay, I thought, we’re making real progress in this discussion. But, the truth is, it’s still easier for a guy like Peter to pull this off.  And then he began his second story.

“About a year ago, I had a peer come to me and tell me she thought I was a bully. I was shocked. I was hurt. I don’t see myself as a bully. I asked why. It came down to the fact that I was holding people accountable, and that was uncomfortable and I knew I couldn’t change that. But I also knew that accountability is one thing, bullying is another.

So I went to some of my other peers. And several of them said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re a bully sometimes.’

And I knew I needed to change. I dug deeper on how my behavior was being perceived. I started listening more. I entered rooms more gently. I watched my tone and manner. No work I’ve ever done on my leadership has made a bigger impact on my influence. I’m still holding people accountable, but I’m watching my style. It’s easier for all of us.

Can you imagine if that woman had FOSU? I’d still be frustrating her and everyone else. She did all of us a favor by speaking up.

I understand the culture we’re in, but I’ve got to tell you. People don’t speak up enough. We have to talk about this stuff in order for the culture to change.

How can we do that better?'”

Your Turn: How Can We?

And so I turn that question back to you. This is hard, no doubt. But how do we encourage more people to use speak up and find their voice? I’d love to hear your stories of overcoming FOSU and the difference it made.

leadership development Karin Hurt and David Dye

Posted in Winning Well.

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, Founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was recently named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of 3 books: Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.


  1. Thank you for the article “Why Bother Speaking Up? It Won’t Help (and other Destructive Thinking).” To me, reasons for not speaking up (a) fear of being fired, (b) oppressed, or (c) bullied.
    How can you convince employees to speak up when they know “the leader,” favors staff who agree with her or him. You see a toxic environment. What can you do? Leave the organization? Not as easy as it sounds.

    • Thanks so much for speaking up and sharing your concern. I do think there are some truly toxic circumstances and organizations where speaking up can do real harm. My experience in working across a wide range of industries and with leaders and followers around the world is that the fear trumps reality. We imagine the consequences to be far worse then they actually are.

      Every situation is different, and it’s difficult to give blanket advice… but one technique I have seen work consistently is approaching the manager by starting with how much you care about them and the project/work you are doing and you want to see it (and them) succeed. And ask if you can share your ideas on how to make things better.

      It’s very hard to get defensive when approached like that. We also teach the P.E.R.S.U.A.D.E. model as a way to help speak to power. http://letsgrowleaders.com/2013/11/01/how-to-persuade-boss/

  2. I am a clinical practitioner who works with clients who use their employee assistance program and have spoken up and the results have been negative. They have been fired, isolated and
    demoted for example. These are mostly people of color who do not get support from HR, their union representatives and outside resources. They frequently remain and suffer because they need the job or leave so they will not receive negative employment references. These individuals are taught constructive communication skills and stress management as some techniques to cope. The employee assistance programs are paid by the employers so they inform us that we cannot advocate or advise employees directly. I would like to hear from readers who do not deal with sophisticated employers such as we are hearing in the ” me too movement.

    • Hi D.r Rosalind, Thanks so very much for sharing your experiences. I do believe that what you are experiencing is real in some circumstances. There are unfortunately still some very toxic (and illegal behaviors) happening in organizations. And of course, after spending a decade in HR before heading out to a series of executive field assignments, I also know that sometimes there are other issues going on and it’s very important to hear both sides of the story.

      In our work, we stress building a deep bench of communication and relationship building skills. And every now and then there is a real jerk or a terribly toxic organization where those won’t work— but I firmly believe that is the exception, not the rule.

      I also see many circumstances of people letting their past experiences make them overly cautious and their FOSU limits their effectiveness, confidence, and career growth. I really hope that others will weigh in as well and share theirperspectives. Thank you so much!

  3. Hi Karin,

    Thanks for the conversation.

    In my experience it takes a lot to “have to” speak up, and can feel very isolating, especially when there is little trust and transparency in communication. When communication is lacking it is the only time that I feel I have to speak up, because in most cases I have build the foundation of trust with my stakeholders that communication is open.

  4. Hi Karin,

    Thanks for the conversation.

    In my experience it takes a lot to “have to” speak up, and can feel very isolating, especially when there is little trust and transparency in communication. When communication is lacking it is the only time that I feel I have to speak up, because in most cases I have build the foundation of trust with my stakeholders that communication is open.

  5. Hi Shawn, Thanks so much for weighing in. A foundation of trust is so important which is why we really encourage managers to make the extra effort to build trust and encourage open dialogue. In cultures where people wait until the “have to” speak up… there are a lot of important ideas not being shared and results and relationships suffer.

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