The How and Why of Speaking Up

When asking employees and managers what they most want to feel, I often hear that they want to be “recognized.”  They want to feel that their contributions matter; that they are seen for who they are and what they contribute.  They want to feel valued and they want their opinions to matter.
And yet, there are so many situations that can result in diminished esteem and self-confidence – coworker conflicts, bullying from their managers, affronts by brazenly unprofessional partners. In my experience as an HR consultant and Employee Relations specialist, it’s when people feel invisible that they so often ultimately file complaints.  In other words, the trajectory of when things go from gradually uncomfortable to suddenly unbearable is often parallel to the gradual progression of employees’ perceived invisibility.
In HG Wells’ The Invisible Man, the title character is a scientist who discovers a way to render himself invisible.  Still very much alive and intact, the lead character must don the coverings of injured or mummified dead in order to be seen.  Only when he is bandaged, can people see him.
Many employees, wanting to be seen or feel heard, do the same.  They speak up often at the point where they can no longer tolerate a situation, where their day-to-day coping with perceived unfairness or insensitivity from their managers has made them feel anxious, frustrated, disheartened, discouraged, demoralized – invisible.  And, to finally be seen and heard, and for others to understand that things must change, they speak up:  they raise a complaint, they file a charge, or they report a misdeed.
Recently, I met with an employee who told me that she was very unhappy.  Referring to her handwritten notes to help her find the words, she whispered, “I want to feel like I matter.”  After 10 years with her organization, she said she no longer felt valued and respected.  It was a realization that came on as many do; gradually and then suddenly her manager seemed not to care about her.  Anecdotally, she described several incidents over the last couple of years that supported her conclusion.  The final straw related to a gift card – a card that she was accustomed to receiving every year from her manager to mark her anniversary with the organization.  This year, however, the employee’s anniversary came and went with no gift card or mention by her manager.  The employee let it go initially.  She made up a story in her mind, “It’s been a tough financial year for us.  Maybe the company doesn’t do gift cards anymore.  Oh well.”  In short, rather than ask about it, she just wrapped a bandage around her head and went on, at least until she discovered an anniversary gift card on one of her co-worker’s desks.  The unhappy employee confronted her manager about why she hadn’t received an acknowledgement of her anniversary.  The manger apologized profusely and said that he had forgotten to request it; the manager promised to submit the request immediately.  However, six weeks later, no gift card.  The employee asked her manager again and learned that the manager submitted the request, but never followed up.  Three months after her anniversary, the employee finally received her gift card.  Now, as I met with her, the employee had the gift card for six months and never even used it.  What used to be something she looked forward to each year had now become a symbol of her lack of worth to both her manager and her company.
This employee, like so many others do, felt like there was nothing she could do to change the situation for the better – her manager didn’t value her and now she had proof.  She had become a disenfranchised captive in an organization that she used to love and now didn’t trust.  To cope, she had decided to put her head down, keep her mouth shut, do her work and go promptly home at the end of her workday.  Her response is understandable and certainly not uncommon.   Unaware, however, she had metaphorically injected herself with invisibility serum and now strove to be seen by wrapping herself up in her own woundedness and hurt.
Not surprisingly, her manager, as it turns out, saw it differently.  A solid performer had gradually and then suddenly become complacent and unmotivated.  The employee’s wounds made her appear to the manager as a victim, not someone who was a contributor.  Left unresolved, this is a situation likely to culminate in any number of ways, none of them good – not good for the employee, the manager or the organization.
So, for all those brokenhearted and disengaged due to the insensitivity of their managers, I offer an antidote – a way to remove the bandages of the wounded and reclaim the value, dignity and respect employees yearn for.

  1. Speak up.  Don’t expect people to read your mind.  The more you sulk and mope, rather than deal with the problem head on, the more the problem is apt to look like you.
  2. Expect the best.  Anticipate a positive outcome.  There isn’t much point in having the conversation unless you are prepared for things to be better.  You want things to change?  Have hope.
  3. Provide specifics.  Connect the dots; explain your issue.  Otherwise, your manager is likely to guess wrong– especially if she doesn’t know or believe she did anything wrong.  Explain what the problem is and why it bothers you.  This is your invitation to your manager to know you better and to avoid these kinds of issues in the future.
  4. Be timely. Bring your concerns forward in a timely way.  It makes your concern more credible, and people have a clearer recollection of key events and information so that you can work effectively together on resolution.
  5. Remain logical, unemotional.  If you become emotional you risk being perceived as irrational, and the focus will be on your behavior, not the problem.  Keep cool and stick to the facts.  And if you are hurt – say so.
  6. Focus on the desired outcome.  What is the change you are seeking?
  7. Seek to be understood; then let it go.  You can’t control the outcome or the way that others will respond.  Trust the process and let people know how things impact you.  The rest is up to them.
  8. Determine your next step when your managers’ reaction no longer matters.  This is a time to go all in. You will choose to forgive or not forgive, you will stay or you will go.  There are many choices available to you – you are not a prisoner of your company or your manager.  The only person who can allow your manager to have a hold on you is you.  Make your next move, whatever it is, when your well-being is the highest priority and your manager’s reaction no longer matters.
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