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Finding Your Voice: Speaking Up When It Matters

In today's fast-paced and often polarized world, it can be challenging to speak up when we witness something ethically questionable, encounter offensive speech, or disagree with consensus opinion. According to a recent study, most people tend to remain silent in such situations, often rationalizing their inaction as a way to avoid conflict or maintain social harmony. However, as diligent employees, compassionate colleagues, and thoughtful leaders, it is crucial that we find the courage to lend our voices to the conversation.

Today we will explore the psychological challenges of speaking up, ways to lessen the social threat it creates, and practical strategies for making your voice heard.

The Psychological Difficulty of Speaking Up

Speaking up when it matters can be a daunting task. It requires us to confront our fears of rejection, embarrassment, and social exclusion. Our brains are wired to avoid these negative outcomes, which can make it challenging to take the first step. According to Dr. Amy Edmondson, a renowned psychologist and author, "The fear of speaking up is not just about fear of conflict or disagreement, it's also about the fear of social exclusion."

Moreover, the pressure to conform to group norms can be overwhelming, making it easier to stay silent than to risk standing out. This is particularly true in situations where there is a strong consensus opinion, and dissenting voices are not welcome.

Lessen the Social Threat

To overcome the psychological barriers to speaking up, it's essential to create an environment where diverse perspectives are valued and respected. Leaders can play a crucial role in fostering such a culture by actively encouraging open communication and constructive criticism.

One effective way to lessen the social threat is to make it clear that you're not out to get anyone. Instead, your intention is to share your concerns or ideas to improve the situation or address a problem. This can be done by:

  • Using "I" statements instead of "you" statements, which can come across as accusatory.

  • Framing your concerns as questions rather than accusations.

  • Avoiding inflammatory language and focusing on the issue at hand.

  • Listening actively and responding thoughtfully to others' perspectives.

Make an If-Then Plan

Creating an if-then plan can help you prepare for situations where you might need to speak up. This involves identifying potential scenarios where you would need to speak up and developing a plan of action for each one.

For instance, if you witness a colleague making an offensive comment, your if-then plan might include:

  • Stating your concern directly and respectfully.

  • Explaining how their comment affected you and why it's important to address.

  • Offering a solution or suggestion for improvement.

Having a plan in place can help alleviate some of the anxiety associated with speaking up and increase the likelihood that you will take action when the time comes.


Speaking up when it matters is never easy, but it's a crucial part of being a responsible and engaged member of society. By recognizing the psychological challenges that come with it, lessening the social threat, and creating an if-then plan, you can find the courage and confidence to make your voice heard. Remember, speaking up is not just about expressing your opinions; it's about creating a more inclusive, equitable, and just world for everyone. So, the next time you witness something ethically questionable, encounter offensive speech, or disagree with consensus opinion, don't be afraid to speak up. Your voice matters.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.

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