Tan’s Tips: Speaking up in the workplace

I’ve decided to add a section to my blog which gives people some of my personal tips and advice on different topics. These are from my personal experience or knowledge that I think and hope will be useful on some level to some people out there who are looking for any help on the subjects I talk about.

My first post under Tan’s Tips is about speaking up in the workplace. How to speak up for yourself and improve your confidence. This is not necessarily about being confident enough to talk to colleagues or get on with them, but about overcoming adversities in the workplace that low confidence can hinder you from doing. These are things I have learnt over the years either as I went along or in hindsight and I’m drawing on real-life experiences in different jobs I’ve had to write these tips.

As a naturally quiet and quite shy person usually, I have nearly always had trouble gaining confidence and using my voice in new jobs and this is sometimes even true after I’m more settled in. If you’re the same, I hope you do find these tips – that I’ve brought in Miss Elle Woods from Legally Blonde to help illustrate – useful!

1. Don’t be afraid to admit your shyness

“You’re very quiet” – this is something “quiet” or shy people who are not naturally used to opening up to new people so quickly hear way too often. It sometimes almost makes you want to scream out LOUD, right? Some people don’t quite comprehend at first that not everyone is bubbly, talkative, open-minded/an open book or extroverted. In many jobs they want employees to be interpersonal people, people who will speak up and have confidence. But of course, not everyone is like this and they need to realise that, giving people who aren’t a chance or the time they may need to open up their shells.

The above direct statement telling someone they’re quiet is, even if not intentional, rather patronising. They most likely know they are, and sometimes they wish they weren’t and were completely the opposite for whatever reason, and therefore dislike it being pointed out to them as if it’s a bad thing. Because it’s not.

So what is the right response to that? Well, there’s no concrete answer. Of course, a sarcastic retort is not ideal, but nor is suddenly pretending you aren’t a quiet person just to prove them wrong, especially if deep down you’re not ready to partially or fully open up yet. A good response that has worked for me in the past is simply being honest. Admitting you are and saying that’s just who you are or advising them that you are at first but once you’re more settled and know people better, already opens yourself up. They more often than not will admire that honesty and ownership of who you are and accept it, back down and not bring it up again – they’ll simply wait until the time you’re ready to be a more open person, if at all or however open.

2. OWN your role

We’ve all been in positions where other people like to have a say in how you should do your job or something within your job. They have ideas, suggestions and tips that while sometimes are good ones you can take on board, they are also sometimes simply what they want to see or a personal opinion they hold on your work. I always welcome advice and ideas, as should everyone, but there comes times when people do just try and dictate their views onto you, however subtle they try to be about it.

In the field of social media, this couldn’t be more frustrating. With social media now becoming the main face of many companies so how they come across to the public and are perceived and judged by them increases in importance, everyone likes to have a say in how social media should be run and managed. Too often in social media roles I have had to make sure my ideas are just as well thought out and reasoned as others’ and my reasons for doing something are valid when people question it. So don’t be afraid to make it known that your role – whatever that may be – is what you’re in charge of and should have the biggest say in and don’t be afraid to tell others in the politest possible way you can think of – to mind their own job instead of yours – if they get too overbearing. You were hired for that role because of your experience and expertise in that area, not them.

In one role I had, decisions regarding the running, handling and implementation of social media were discussed and changed numerous times without my presence or knowledge until after I returned to work or when they had already been changed. Don’t make the same mistake I did of not speaking out and questioning why I wasn’t consulted beforehand. This has remained my biggest regret of all in my working life, where I felt powerless due to the decisions being seemingly final and typically the one who probably would’ve said “no” during the voting process of something. Despite it being my role and my responsibility, my work and my presence on the team had been undermined and effectively ganged up on. My confidence in myself, my work and in my so-called team had been knocked…

So don’t allow people to take over or your line manager to micromanage you. Speak up and have confidence in yourself, your role and what you’re doing because even not being sure about something small will open up a crack for people to slip through and take control!

3. DO challenge or question

As mentioned in the previous point, don’t be afraid to challenge or question things. This could be as seemingly small as questioning why there is a certain way of doing something or why a certain policy is in place. This can be just a matter of curiosity rather than being against it. When you start new roles, people will inevitably say “there are no stupid questions” – so take this liberty and ask as many questions as you can to fully understand your role, what’s expected of you, and how the department you’re in or the company is run. This avoids confusion or mistakes down the line that could be due to not asking about it, however trivial it may seem, at the start. It also stops the blame being turned around on you if something goes tits up because you’ve already asked about it and that was the answer you were given.

Don’t be afraid to ask other people about their role or something that they’re doing either. Just as people will no doubt question you, you are free to do the same, so that you both understand what each other is doing and how your work relates to the other’s. And just as people can give you advice or suggestions, you too can do the same with others. Just remember to practise what you preach, word yourself carefully and do not come on too strong with what you have to say. Simply being nice and helpful and adding in phrases such as “it’s up to you” or “you don’t have to” does not pressure anybody.

If you feel something bubbling inside you that you need to say – I say, say it! Be prepared with what you have to say on everything you want to say so that not one problem is left unspoken about and that they hear you out. And never leave it too late. I have too often regretted not speaking up, questioning and challenging actions, behaviours, policies or decisions until after it has happened or after I’ve left the job. What can be done after you’ve gone? Nothing. What will they do to help you after you’ve gone? FA.

4. Assert yourself

This is especially true if you’re on a managerial level. You will nearly always get someone below you on your team who will push as many buttons as they can. If you’re viewed as having limited confidence and quiet, you’re in for a challenge! But absolutely do not be afraid to prove why you’re in a managerial position and assert yourself. In doing so, by telling your colleague off for insubordination or by delegating tasks (seemingly asking but actually telling), this will make them rethink who you are. They’ll likely be taken by surprise but unlikely to try the same trick twice. You’re also likely to gain more respect from them.

I used to work with someone who continuously tried to take the piss and think she could get away with it. She was, to put in the kindest and politest way, an annoying, rebellious chatterbox who thought she was better than she was, constantly trying to undermine management. However, when I once demanded she stop behaving a certain way in a raised tone, she was taken aback and kept quiet for the rest of the day, actually following orders for once. And if you can stand up and speak up once you can surely do it again so don’t be afraid to grow your confidence further and improve your managerial skills in this way.

In non-managerial positions you can and should still assert yourself when you need to. If you don’t agree with something your manager has said, don’t be afraid to say so and why. Be prepared with reasons why or an afternative option otherwise you won’t get far. Some managers say they welcome opinions and ideas but in my experience, many have their own set ideas they want carried out and need to be convinced by others.

The above is most especially true if you’re new to your role and your colleagues and particularly managers have been there a while. And even more so if it’s a small, tight-knit or family-run company. Their circles are tighter and they have “ways” in place they prefer to keep rather than change. But if you have no confidence to speak up, come up with new ideas to pitch, question things you wonder about or disagree with, all while working your hardest and having to respect the fact you’ll always be under someone who has a bigger say and influence than you, you’ll be seen as nothing more than passing labour.

5. Speak up about injustice

Too often we see injustice happening and we daren’t do anything about it for fear of how we come across or how it affects our job. This might be anything from hearing a “joke” at the expense of someone else, knowing when someone is being excluded, seeing someone being treated or spoken to differently to others (including being treated better than others), or when/if you yourself feel discriminated against, excluded or ignored, or unfairly treated.

In past jobs I have bore witness to people being treated differently – both worse and better than others. In one, a colleague with medical issues meant her ability to work in some capacities was affected and she was scolded because of it with no understanding or acknowledgement of her medical reason. Since I was already leaving the company, I felt my voice standing up for her would have no effect, especially since the manager in charge was – sorry, not sorry – a mega bitch. In my grievance letter upon leaving I mentioned this issue, but although I was finally bringing this injustice to light, I still felt powerless to do much else – it felt too late and who knows what came from this if anything? As I said earlier, don’t leave questioning and challenging too late, especially after you’ve already left the job!

I have also seen people continuously flout rules and get away with things. For example, people not following orders or being consistently late and not being told off or punished, people leaving work without permission or leaving early for reasons that aren’t allowed, and people being allowed to work from home when this was explicitly forbidden to employees regardless of any circumstance…

Unfortunately, I have let these acts of favouritism slip by in the past, and many others would too I’m sure. It seems more commonplace to see and stand up against injustice but when you see others getting away by bending or disregarding rules or stipulations in contracts, you’re seen as a complainer, even bitter, or a busybody – because other people’s situations have nothing to do with you and are discretionary between the person getting away with it and the person allowing them to get away with it.

But my advice is, DON’T let people get away with it. The more you don’t speak up, question or formally complain about these things, the more it will happen. And don’t be afraid to take things further should your first line of contact fall flat. If your manager won’t listen to what you have to say then keep going up until you’re heard and taken seriously. I’d daresay to even speak up if it jeopardises your future there. If you are witnessing these injustices at all, then this is perhaps not the best place for you to be working at anyway. You are better getting it off your chest and getting out of there, rather than allowing your voice and confidence to be silenced and downtrodden. I came across the below image on LinkedIn, which I couldn’t agree with more!

And of course, you can always turn to Elle Woods who gives some of the best advice on how to stand up for yourself and others, use your voice and SPEAK UP!


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