Client Director Ashridge Business School
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Mastering the art of speaking up: the importance of trust

In the first part of a new content series on mastering the art of speaking up, Megan Reitz and John Higgins, co-authors of 'Speak up. Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard', explain why trust is an essential ingredient in any conversation. 

14th Jan 2020
Client Director Ashridge Business School
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business woman and man holding speech bubbles
iStock/Moyo Studio

Every day we make choices about whether to speak up or stay silent and whether to listen up or discount someone’s opinion. These choices can have huge consequences for our colleagues, our organisations and ourselves. In our new book we describe the TRUTH framework, which outlines five key issues that affect these choices:

  • Trust
  • Risk
  • Understanding
  • Titles
  • How-to

In this, the first of five articles exploring this framework, we explain the first of these: trust.

Moving past imposter syndrome

Speaking up starts with trusting that you have an opinion that matters to you – and it is worthwhile putting out there in the world. Whilst there are people who become so confident in their opinion and its need to be heard that they are willing to pursue its expression however much damage it does to others and however much airtime it consumes, many of us are inhibited from speaking up due to the imposter experience.

Having an inner voice that silences us, for example by saying ‘you’ll mess it up! They’ll find out you don’t know what you’re talking about!’ is normal. We must learn to spot the imposter voice when it speaks and see it as just that – a thought and not ‘truth’.

Given the right encouragement and support, preparing and rehearsing thoroughly and expecting and learning from mistakes, gradually we can learn to trust and value our opinion.

Failing to listen

More troubling, however, is that we tend to have a habit of distrusting the value of the opinion of others that means we fail to listen up. We often listen to those voices that are like our own rather than engaging in alternative perspectives. If the description ‘open to changing their mind’ is rarely applied to you and if you are unable to see your perspectives as partial and limited, then you are unlikely to trust the value of others’ opinions.

When it comes to trust in speaking up and listening up, most of us believe that the problem is not with us but with those around us – and this is especially the case for those in senior positions. This was a striking finding that came from the major quantitative survey we carried out during our research.

The trust challenge for HR professionals is to help those who lack confidence to speak up (often the more junior and minority employees who anticipate, understandably, more negative consequences from speaking up) through positive messaging and useful and safe forums. The most effective method of enabling these voices, however, is to help leaders and those in positions of power to listen up more fully and to really trust and value the opinion of others.

Leaders need to be open to hearing news of difference, often told in ways and in styles that don’t fit with their preferences and perspectives. Being curious to the experiences of others requires a capacity for openness and a desire to learn. Organisations still often reward for self-drive, assertion and individual performance, however, and it is only at the most senior levels where suddenly leaders are now expected to acquire and truly role model those much-maligned collaborative life skills.

Taking on the challenge

Some questions to ask yourself and those around you:

  • Do you trust your own opinion enough, not enough or too much?
  • What conditions typically lead you to trust or mistrust your opinion and capability? How does this effect how you speak up?
  • What subjects do you tend to seek opinions on – and which subjects are you less open about?
  • Whose perspectives do you miss out by favouring certain people’s (or your own) voices?
  • If you could diversify just a bit, whose voices could and should you include more?

Organisational life is now so complicated that it is impossible for any one individual (no matter how senior) to know all that they need to know. No wonder we find ourselves faced with a challenge when it comes to trusting both our own opinion and that of others. Without trust speaking and listening up fail. As we shall see in our next article, if risks are perceived as too high, silence prevails.

 

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