How to speak up safely in the workplace

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(MoneyWatch) The other day, I taught part of a conflict-resolution skills course. The idea was that we all have issues or concerns at work that we want to raise are afraid to -- issues around pay, co-workers, assignments, bosses. For the most part, we do not address such concerns because we are afraid of the conflict that will ensue, which we think we can't manage and are bound to lose.

That organizational silence is immensely risky. It means companies don't know what's going on and problems don't get fixed. Managers are, and remain, willfully blind. One solution is to teach employees how to raise these touchy topics in a way that a productive outcome may reasonably be expected.

So what are the key rules for enabling this kind of conversation?

1. Do your homework. Make sure your facts are right and, if possible, that your perception of events is reasonable and shared by your team or group. If you need to complain about a person or a project, the chances are that you aren't the only person who sees the problem. Be sure you aren't wrong.

2. Get allies. Can you argue on behalf of people beyond yourself? Doing so always gives your argument more force and appears less self-centered.

3. Think about communication styles. Will the person you need to confront feel blindsided if you raise an issue without warning? If you first want to brief the individual, how does person like getting information -- in documents, email, graphs or words? Think about how to present your concerns in a way that increases the chances that they will be heard.

4. Come with solutions. The issue you want to raise may be one you can't solve. But don't come without any ideas; have at least a few suggestions that might improve the situation. 

5. Close the conversation. Determine a time by which a decision is needed. Many of the best people I've worked with don't like being put on the spot and made to immediately come up with an answer. Given time, they can be creative and courageous. But make it clear that by some date, a response of some kind is needed.

Nobody likes airing problems, concerns or grievances, and most people believe that doing so is too dangerous to warrant the risk. They typically think they have only two choices -- shut up or leave. But people who have the courage to risk broaching these difficult conversations many find that there's more give in the system -- and more courage in themselves -- than they ever imagined. They may also discover that practice makes these conversations easier. And smart managers recognize that the people with the courage to speak up are leaders of the future.

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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