Regardless of job title, one challenge amongst the majority of leaders I’ve worked with is finding the courage to speak up. This could look like sharing an idea, making a suggestion for improvement, disagreeing with a course of action, or addressing frustration with a co-worker. Instead, people are likely to not say anything, avoid the situation, give up, talk about their feelings with everyone except the people who have the potential to change the situation, or stuff everything down until they either blow up, stew in resentment, or quit. Despite reasons to stay silent, choosing to do so runs the risk of an often worse consequence: maintaining the status quo. Therefore, to truly lead, we must find the courage to speak up.

The Impact of Silence

On a given day, there are many opportunities to use your voice. Consider some common scenarios:

  • An employee has a co-worker who frequently interrupts them with questions and personal stories. Instead of talking to the co-worker, the employee complains about the person to other co-workers, who commiserate and laugh. The employee puts up a wall with their co-worker, but underneath feels ongoing resentment and irritation.
  • Managers are required to conduct ongoing tasks that they think are inefficient and unimportant. Although they have some great ideas on how to both improve upon and reduce the tasks, they just vent to each other, make sarcastic comments, and go through the motions.
  • A team thinks their meetings are a waste of time. Their boss, who leads the meetings, doesn’t stick to the agenda, monologues, and doesn’t seem to have a purpose for the meeting. When the boss asks for feedback, people are either silent or just say that everything’s good. Afterward, however, the team gets together to gossip about how bad the meetings are.
  • An employee is late to work almost every day, but their boss is afraid to address the issue directly. Instead, they make jokes and indirect comments like “Guess you had more important things to do this morning” or “Gee, thanks for showing up today.” Both the boss and team are resentful, but the boss seems to think that things could be worse and that the employee will eventually get the message.
  • A leader is excited about a new policy change that they believe will make customers happy. However, the people on the front lines, who have direct experience, know better. Instead of saying anything, they undermine the policy and have a negative attitude, which results in increased reprimands and conflict with management.

In each of the scenarios, the outcome is the same: nothing changes. Whether the consequences are major or minor, people experience an ongoing baseline of negativity that makes their lives worse, not better.

The “Buts” of Silence

Before talking about what we can do to speak up, the first thing I often hear are the “buts” that justify not saying anything. Reasons such as:

  • “It doesn’t make any difference”
  • “I’ll get in trouble”
  • “No one will listen”
  • “It’s easier not to say anything”
  • “If I do, they’ll just ____”
  • “I already know what’s going to happen”
  • “I don’t want to rock the boat”
  • “It’s not my place”
  • “They won’t like me”

In some cases, such as in toxic work environments, these reasons could be justified. In these instances, getting some objective perspectives from people you trust can help you discern what action to take. However, more often than not, these “buts” are reasons to avoid putting ourselves out there. Not only that, our negative experiences are typically not reflective of the fact that we spoke up – they are reflective of how we spoke up. With practice, however, we can both cultivate the courage and the skill to use our voice effectively.

Finding Your Voice

When we choose to speak up, we create opportunities for things to change. However, the keyword is choice. If we do nothing, nothing is likely to change. By being more proactive and making the choice to use your voice, you step into leadership. Here are some tools you can use to find your voice:

  • Not live with deficiencies. One of the principles in the Nuclear Navy to ensure safety, developed by Admiral Hyman Rickover, is not living with deficiencies. This principle applies to all aspects of our lives. Whether it’s tolerating someone who bothers us, tolerating having our time wasted, or tolerating meaningless tasks, we can choose to not live with these deficiencies and make the choice to do something about them. Be honest with yourself and acknowledge the impact of not saying anything.
  • See the possibilities. When people consider speaking up they imagine all the things that could go wrong instead of what could potentially go right. Considering positive outcomes can help us be more courageous. We also tend to focus on what we don’t like or want instead of what we do want. Getting clear on the desired outcome helps us, and others, move towards something new.
  • Assume ignorance. We tend to think that people are deliberately behaving in ways to annoy us. Yet, most of the time, they are simply unaware. Do leaders set out to hold boring meetings? To waste time and money? To take ineffective approaches? Typically, no. Think of times when someone has pointed out something in yourself that you were completely unaware of.Unless someone tells us otherwise, we have no reason to think we’re doing anything wrong and will continue the behavior. Therefore, it’s our job to help them become aware. When approaching them, however, if you think someone is intentionally behaving in a particular way and approach them with this attitude, the conversation is unlikely to go well. If, however, you assume they are unaware, you can approach them with more empathy, which makes it much more likely that they’ll receive the message.
  • Use questions and suggestions to manage up. When communicating with leaders above us, it’s wise to consider our approach. Instead of direct confrontation or giving direction, we can speak up by using questions or suggestions. For example, it probably won’t go over well to tell your boss that a meeting is a waste of time. However, using questions (in a neutral, curious tone) such as “What is the purpose for our meeting today?”, “Can I share an idea I’ve got?”, or “What are some actions we can take between now and the next meeting?” are non-threatening and still address the topic. Additionally, sharing the why can help others understand where you’re coming from.

I also suggest taking advantage of books like Crucial Conversations and Difficult Conversations, both of which include great suggestions. In addition, here are some questions to consider:


  • What are your reasons for not speaking up? What is the impact of not doing so?
  • What are some positive outcomes that could come from speaking up?
  • When speaking up, what outcome would you like to see? How can you share that outcome with others?
  • What would it take for a situation to become painful enough for you to speak up? How can you hold yourself accountable to keep it from getting to that point?