Is Silence Killing Your Career?

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A Taiwan-born engineer working in Silicon Valley was asked by her manager, “Do you know why I hired you?” The engineer replied that it was because of her knowledge and skills. " “Yes,” the manager agreed that these were important factors. But, he added, “I also expect you to use your knowledge and skills to proactively provide input into solving the technical problems facing the team.” In other words, the manager wanted the engineer to speak up, share her observations, point out errors, and make suggestions. And he wanted her to do this regularly, in both meetings and one-on-one conversations. These expectations were a surprise to the engineer.

New to the American workplace, she thought that what she was doing was enough. She worked hard, did what she was told, and listened respectfully to her manager and co-workers. Now, she realized her respectful silence was killing her career. Importance of Speaking Up In this blog, we discuss why speaking up and sharing your thoughts are critical for ensuring your career growth as a member of an effective team. First, we provide a broader context for the importance of speaking up. We go beyond self-promotion to clarify why speaking up is critical behavior for the success of both your career and your team. Second, we offer guidelines for speaking up. Third, we explain how you can proactively help create a climate where fellow team members feel comfortable and safe in speaking up. Interpersonal Risk Taking in Knowledge-Based Organizations Interpersonal risk taking includes speaking up, asking questions, identifying errors, admitting mistakes, and giving and receiving feedback.

Interpersonal risk taking is important in knowledge-based organizations, such tecnology and engineering companies, because learning and innovation are keys to success. In knowledge-based organizations, the success of teams depends on its individual members being able to be direct, open, and assertive to ensure good decisions are made. In this environment, you must be able to present and sell your ideas freely and forcefully, disagree with peers and superiors, ask critical questions, manage criticism, and give and receive strong negative feedback. Additionally, you must be a “quick healer,” that is, not take criticism personally and be able to collaborate with those whom you strongly disagree with.

Guidelines for Speaking Up Over time, like most foreign-born professionals, you will adjust to this kind of environment to some degree. However, you may find the adjustment stressful because the expected behavior contradicts many of your cultural values. Fortunately, you have access to a practical approach to adapting your behavior developed by Andy Molinsky. We described his approach when we reviewed his book, Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Behavior Across Cultures Without Losing Yourself in the Process. Equally important are these guidelines that will help you to speak up successfully in meetings.

  • Don’t be afraid to stand out.Offering a different point of view is considered an asset to effective team work.

  • Appear commanding by keeping your comments brief and to the point. It also helps if you speak louder than normal and you maintain eye contact with listeners.

  • Skillfully interrupt others by repeating the last phrase they said so you can smoothly add your own ideas to the discussion.

  • Ask challenging questions to move the discussion forward.

  • Make sure you have given your manager a heads up if your opinion differs from theirs.

Contributing to Effective Team Dynamics Of course, it’s the manager’s responsibility to create a safe environment where everyone has an opportunity to share their observations and ideas in a meeting. When you gain enough confidence and skill in speaking up, however, you can promote your leadership ability by giving feedback to your team. For example, if you have noticed that participation in your team is uneven, with some individuals speaking most of the time and others remaining silent, you can share your observations. It’s important to frame your comments as a means of improving the performance of the team. Be sure to be descriptive rather than evaluative. That is, describe the participation patterns with concrete examples and not use labels. Finally, balance your comments by offering positive feedback. For example, you can cite the strengths of the team as well as its shortcomings. In summary, speaking up, asking challenging questions, and giving feedback are all part of your job. Developing and using these essential soft skills will help you realize your career goals.

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