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Speaking Up at Work: Grow Your Confidence with These 3 Tips

I started my career as a wide-eyed Procter & Gamble sales rep. When it came time to attend my first sales meeting, I was equal parts nervous and excited. Our meeting kicked off with the head of customer experience for a big retail grocery chain, talking about how they were going to create a next-level experience for grocery store shoppers.

They told us, “Our goal is to get our target customer (moms of young children) to spend more time in the store.” As they displayed the beautiful new deli, the wide aisles, and the huge baby section, I found myself thinking, “Aren’t they going to do anything about the bathrooms?”

At the time, I called on grocery store managers, and had been in and out of thousands of grocery store bathrooms. I’d watched mothers try to change their baby on a sink countertop or keep a wiggly toddler from touching anything. I myself, carried disinfectant in my purse, because the bathrooms were so consistently awful.

In that moment (back in the early 90’s) I thought to myself. . . Of course the people in charge are going to address the bathrooms, right? They’re probably just not saying anything because it’s so obvious.

The customer point blank told us:  “If you have more ideas tell us.” But I didn’t speak up. And that was wrong. Because in fact, no one had thought to re-do the bathrooms. A decade passed before they were addressed.

The fear of speaking up, especially in big meetings, keeps millions of ideas and insights from ever coming to fruition. It’s not an uncommon challenge, but it is solvable. Here are 3 tips to help:

  1. Start small

If the thought of raising your hand in front of several hundred senior leaders is enough to make your stomach churn, start smaller. Make a practice of sharing your insights with your boss, your peers, or newer teammates. You’re more likely to get a warm response and build your well of confidence for higher stakes situations.

You can also get practice outside of your organization, like virtual toastmasters, social groups, or mentoring circles. Making a habit of contributing will radiate into your workplace.

  1. Get rejected

For many, the fear of speaking up is deeply rooted in the fear of rejection. As if, somehow, only perfectly formed ideas deserve to be voiced.

In creative spaces, like marketing or design, that thought is accepted as the nonsense it is. Iterating and collaborating are essential. The creative process is messy; full of ideas that are tossed out, transformed, and born again.

To overcome a fear of rejection, seek environments where you can be (kindly) rejected. Get yourself used to feedback. Offer to participate in (or host!) brainstorming sessions or just bounce idea around with a friend over coffee. You might be surprised how not-that-devastating it is to hear someone respond to your idea with an “eh.” Or, how your initial idea could jumpstart an even better group-idea.

The more comfortable you become in these lower stakes “rejections,” the more willing you are to toss your hat in the ring during big conversations.

  1. Champion someone else

I’ve long written about the core human need to make a difference, to have an impact. We instinctually want to make a difference for someone other than ourselves. When I was afraid to speak up at that National Sales Meeting, it’s because I was focused on what might happen to me (rejection). Not what might happen to someone else (finally, a decent bathroom!).

If self-doubt is keeping you quiet, try looking outside of yourself. Could customers be helped with your new idea? Could people in your organization be more effective if you spoke up? Is there a risk that others might not see?

This month we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day in my country; I read one of his most widely shared quotes this morning:

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?”

Changing a diaper in a dirty bathroom pales in comparison to the widespread, grave injustices in our world. Yet, there is a red thread of truth between the two: nothing changes until someone speaks up.