If you’ve ever decided to keep your thoughts to yourself or ignore a situation instead of saying something, you’re not alone. Fear of speaking up is extremely common in organizations, and most of us can likely relate, says Amy Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.
“I have found that people can think of at least one time, and usually many more, when they held back from offering an idea or asking a question at work, despite believing what they had to say might be important,” she says. “Even worse, people fail to speak up not just with bad news or dissent; they also withhold improvement ideas, unless they are extremely confident the ideas will be welcome. This is because people are vulnerable to the implicit logic that safe is better than sorry.”
Holding back is natural. “No one wants to look ignorant or incompetent, and there’s a fundamental asymmetry between silence and voice,” says Edmondson. “Speaking up is effortful and might make a difference in a crucial moment—but it might not. Silence, in contrast, is instinctive and safe. When people are willing to speak up, it’s usually because considerable effort has been put into creating a culture of candor, learning, and innovation that facilities the open sharing of ideas, questions, and concerns.”
Unfortunately, staying silent comes at a price for organizations and employees. Fear dramatically increases the chances that people will look to any means of achieving the goals that have been set, ethical or not, technically safe or not, says Edmondson. It also stifles creativity and inhibits collaboration, both of which are essential to creating new value and solving problems, she says.
Getting past the fear
Getting employees to move past their fear of speaking up starts with leaders, says David Dye, leadership consultant and coauthor of Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul. “Are you asking for input?” he asks. “And are you responding? Even if you can’t take action on what the employee shares, show that you hear them by summarizing what they’ve said and responding with what can be done. When people feel heard, they’re more encouraged to speak up in future, even if things didn’t go their way.”
Don’t think that having an “open-door policy” is enough, adds Karin Hurt, leadership consultant and coauthor of Winning Well. “Unless you’re seeking input, that’s where it will begin to break down,” she says. “When you ask questions, it’s amazing how much input you can get.”
Leaders aren’t the only ones who should be asking questions; anyone can help create safety in an organization by being curious and inviting conversation, says Edmondson. “Questions create a vacuum that serves as a voice opportunity for someone,” she says. “They create a small safe zone automatically. Questions convey: ‘I am interested in what you have to say,’ which create a safe space for one or more others to offer their thinking.”
Listening to what people say and responding with interest can also help to remove fear. “By building on their ideas or giving feedback, you also convey respect, and in subtle but powerful ways reinforce the idea that it’s safe to participate,” says Edmondson. “This does not mean you have to agree with what someone said. Just that you appreciate the effort it took to say it.”
Also pay attention to culture
Fear thrives in highly top-down organizations and transcends employee type, demographics, and even national cultures, says Edmondson. “People instinctively understand that their fate lies in the hands of higher-ups, and they worry more about offending them than about contributing to the mission,” she says. “A particularly toxic combination is extremely ambitious targets communicated alongside a message that failure to achieve those targets is unacceptable; a ‘won’t take no for an answer’ mind-set.”
Also, be cautious about strategies that can encourage keeping silent, says Dye. “If you’ve got teams competing against each other in internal competitions, you make it a disadvantage to share information with colleagues,” he says. “If they do, they may not get the large bonus when the other person beats them. It’s better if an organization has employees compete against an external metric, or compete to improve quality or results in the end.”
A company’s competitive advantage is its human talent, and getting past the fear of speaking up is vital, says Dye. “Organizations need creativity and ingenuity—folks contributing to solve problems and advance the company,” he says. “If you can draw that out, you’ll have a huge competitive advantage.”