How to Speak Up Without Risking Your Job
It’s easy to find fault with the place you work. After all, it’s “the devil you know”. And you’re not alone if you feel like the system just won’t change.
With this underlying belief, when we’re unhappy at work, most of us naturally think we have two options: either leave for another job or suck it up and stay.
Our natural instincts can be costly
While both options are valid, they’re also costly. For you, sticking it out could be miserable and finding a better job is not always a sure thing.
For the organization, a disgruntled or apathetic team member is unlikely to perform at their best, and if they quit it would leave an expensive gap to fill. Especially if the organization had invested significantly in their training.
Furthermore, if everyone in the organization adopts the either/or mentality, the problem continues without ever being addressed.
While our natural tendency is to think in the extremes, if you find yourself facing such a decision where you see only two polar opposite choices, the chances are that there are other options you are missing.
Exit, Loyalty and Voice
This is where the concept of “exit, loyalty and voice” comes in. This was originally developed by economist Albert O. Hirschman to describe the ways people can react when an organization declines: they can sell the stock (exit), do nothing (loyalty), or stay and make a fuss (voice).
More recently, HBS professor Joseph Badaracco Jr. has applied the model to help people determine what to do when their personal values clash or compete with their professional responsibilities. He helps us see the option of speaking up or using your voice to influence outcomes rather than default to either quitting (the exit strategy) or sticking it out (loyalty).
What I appreciate most about the model is that it helps us get beyond the either/or trap of “do I grin and bear it, or do I leave?”. It gets us to see there’s a third way, and maybe even a fourth, fifth and sixth.
That’s exactly the kind of thinking that’s useful whenever we face a situation we’d like to change but don’t think we can. We don’t have to stay stuck.
Why we stay “trapped” in either/or options
The reason we often default to exit or loyalty is that it’s easy. These are actions we can take on our own. We don’t need senior management to buy in, we don’t need to get colleagues on board.
On the other hand, using voice can be complicated. It means “rocking the boat’ when we’re not sure we can be successful.
Of course, you want to choose wisely when exercising your voice – in particular, it needs to be something that matters to you.
When it comes to change, it’s all about the how
Once you decide that an issue matters enough to speak up about it, the most important thing is how you go about speaking up.
Here are five steps you can take to prepare to exercise your voice without risking your job.
1. Scope out the situation
It’s helpful to know what things have already been tried and to look for patterns of what’s worked in the past versus strategies to stay away from.
It’s also useful to look at what other aspects at work have changed over time, and how those changes took place. Was it about new senior managers coming in with a different viewpoint? Or a small band of influential people collaborating to push for change? Or external parties such as customers demanding that management pay attention and take action?
It’s also useful to identify what’s contributing to the problem. Is it driven by the incentive system? The quality of people in the organization? The lack of clarity in the mission?
2. Gather your allies
Some issues are best solved when there’s a groundswell of support rather than a lone voice. So seek out your allies – those others who care about this issue – and enlist them into the effort.
They may be colleagues in other departments, mentors who are in positions of influence, or fellow team members, to name a few. And recognize that you may not be the best placed to lead the effort, and your role may be to get things started.
3. Envision possible pathways
The easy part is knowing the problem that exists, whether that's infighting within the team, silo behavior that prevent teams from collaborating, or toxic bosses who are unaware of their impact on others.
It’s even pretty straightforward to know what the ideal outcome is – in essence, the opposite of what’s happening now.
The magic happens when you start to envision possible pathways to get from here to there.
One way to do this is to ask, “what would need to be true in order for that outcome to happen?” You could ask this of yourself, or better yet, ask others who are also interested in finding a solution.
The beauty of this question is that it invites us to work back from the desired outcome to identify interim stepping stones. And that’s what can help identify a possible path forward.
4. Choose your approach
The way you bring up the issue and the language you use when you exercise the voice option can make the difference between victory and defeat.
Here, I’ve found it’s best to use constructive language that’s focused on forward-looking actions rather than criticizing what’s happened in the past. For example, “I’ve come across a couple of ideas that could substantially increase our visibility in the market, if you’re interested…” tends to land better than “our marketing approach is from the Dark Ages.”
The former gives people something to rally around rather than risk having things degenerate into a complaints festival or a debate. It also makes you sound positive and leader-like whereas criticism tends to make people defensive, which makes them less open to change.
And if you can take my father’s advice to “only use positive words”, you’ll put yourself in an even stronger position.
So if you’re giving someone feedback about their bad habit (negative words) of criticizing team members in public, you could say, “I wonder if you would get more out of the team by giving feedback in private”.
And when you feel like saying, “we’ve wasted too much time and money on this already”, you could say instead, “this is a good time to take what we’ve learned and focus on a new direction.”
The beauty of my father’s advice is that it’s hard to sound like you’re criticizing or complaining when you’re using positive words. And that’s the first step to disarming opposition and creating an environment where change is possible.
5. Take baby steps
Recognize that change is hard. And the bigger your group or organization, the harder it is to turn the ship around. So focus on getting things moving in the right direction. Once you have some positive signs, you can apply your voice to accelerate the pace of change.
How will you use your voice?
So, the next time you have a complaint about what’s going on at work, take a moment to think about how you could use your voice in a constructive way. You might just change things for the better. And be seen as a better leader in the process.
Now, I’d love to hear from you.
What would you like to improve in your workplace, and what’s a step you could take to start using your voice?
Leave a comment and let me know.
Many thanks May, you have a beautiful way of using your words. Loved reading your post.
Barry. (A.K.A. Mr Fabulous)
Great to hear you enjoyed the post, Barry (aka Mr FABULOUS!).
What an excellent post!!! Thank you for your advice, even though I’m not working right now, I think it will be helpful to me!
Thanks so much!
Thanks for sharing, Ann!
This is very timely! I’m going to use this advice to plan a courageous conversation with my boss…Thank you for the tips.
That’s great, Kate. Let me know how it goes. Wishing you positive results from your positive words!
Wow May. A ten out of ten on this one! It is so easy to take the either/or route but you’re so right, there is a third and more constructive option. And when I think back on the good bosses and leaders I have had in my time, they have all had this in common, the ability to look up from the problems and issues and get us to focus on where we want to get to instead. Love it!
Thank you 🙂
Excellent, Priscilla – I’m glad this resonated with you, and I appreciate the 10 out of 10 rating. Based on your reflections, it sounds like you are well on your way to being one of those great bosses and leaders too!