Learning to Speak Up

The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.   - Meister Eckhart 

When I first started out in the working world, I was not one to speak up in meetings. Each year during developmental discussions and performance reviews, I was given the feedback that I have a lot of good things to say when I am in a small group, and that I should not be afraid to say them in larger group settings.

Translation… speak up!

At first I was surprised I was so quiet at work. As I mentioned in earlier posts, I am a very outgoing person under normal circumstances who rarely, if ever, has nothing to say. None of my friends or family would ever call me shy, but my colleagues likely would 10 years ago.

But the more I thought about it, the more I actually realized how it made sense that I was quiet in group settings at work early in my career. Here are three reasons why.

First, I wanted to be right. I was used to getting good grades in school, studying hard for tests, and prepping for class so that I would know the answers in any given situation. I did not want to speak up at work – especially being new and younger and trying to prove myself – if I did not know the “right” thing to say.

  Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As a project manager, I had to get over this thinking rather quickly. I was not supposed to have all of the right answers. Rather, I was supposed to help others get to the right answers by asking questions and helping them think differently and solve problems. So I started questioning everything, raising my hand to say that I did not understand, throwing out crazy ideas to get people thinking, and even pointing out the elephant in the room.

A second reason why I did not speak up was because I felt I did not know as much as everyone else. Most of my colleagues at the time had been doing this whole “work” thing a lot longer than I had. Not only did I think they knew better than I did, but I also I felt it was disrespectful to disagree with or challenge them.

In similar fashion, as a project manager, I had to get over this one, too. I worked with project leaders and sponsors who did not have all of the answers. Actually, they usually relied on me to give them direction and counterpoints so that they could make informed and thoughtful decisions. Outside of helping leadership get things done, I was the new generation of the workforce, and for everyone’s benefit, I owed it to them to bring my fresh ideas and ways of doing things to the table.

And finally, a third reason why I did not speak up at the start of my career was because a lot what I had planned to say was already said by other people by the time I got the courage to say it. That is, they already spoke up and offered ideas similar to mine. So in the end, I had nothing new to say.

This final point stuck with me. I do not feel the need to repeat things that were already said just to say that I contributed to the conversation. I am a project manager and need to move conversations along, so it is a pet peeve of mine when people say things just to be heard. There is a difference between building on someone else’s point and repeating things in a slightly different way to make it sound like a new idea. Do not do the latter!

So if you do not speak up as much as your peers at work, you may need to step outside your comfort zone as a project manager to help your team and your leaders be as productive as possible. It may take time and experience until you make the switch like I did – it probably took me about five years, to be honest. But once you do, you will feel great about what you are able to contribute and how you show up as a project manager.