All Articles Leadership Management Speak up even when your culture says not to

Speak up even when your culture says not to

Studies show that one of the most critical factors to getting ahead is raising your visibility by speaking up.

5 min read


Photo via Stencil

“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”  ― Coco Chanel

Studies show that one of the most critical factors to getting ahead is raising your visibility by speaking up. The sharing of ideas is the No. 1 skill associated with people who inspire confidence. At your company, you may see people flexing their confidence muscles in meetings every day; they speak early and often, and people are really interested in their opinions.

But what if you come from a background that makes jumping in and speaking your mind seem inappropriate, brash or out of place? There are ways to break your habits and get over the uncomfortable sensation of speaking up. First, evaluate and identify how your culture might be causing you to hold back.

Consider your culture. If you are from a country or region other than the one in which you’re now working, you may find yourself in a situation where the rules of social behavior with which you were raised were different from those around you now. Perhaps you’ve been taught that disagreeing with the boss is wrong, or that asking for further clarification is weak.

You might have been raised to defer to elders, or that saying “no” is to be avoided. Perhaps the part of the country you lived in prized a laid-back approach, and getting too excited seems gauche to you. Take note of how your culture has influenced your behavior and be mindful of how it affects your tendency to speak up.

Consider your upbringing. Think back to your family dynamic. Was your family communicative and supportive? Strict and formal? Was everyone expected to defer to one parent? Was questioning authority allowed? Were new ideas met with enthusiasm and animated discussion, or ridicule, teasing or name-calling? What happened when you were wrong, or tried something that didn’t work? Think on how discussion was handled in your home, and note how that has shaped your willingness and desire to share ideas.

Consider your gender. Specifically, consider how your gender affects your tendencies in the culture and climate where you work. If you’re the minority in the room, do you put less value on your opinion? Are you worried that others do? Are you worried about seeming “too loud,” “too brash,” or rude? Many women report worrying that they will be seen as “bitchy” or unfeminine if they disagree or speak too often — or weak if they aren’t as “tough” as men. They see male counterparts assert ill-formed ideas confidently but still hesitate to enter the discussion with more carefully thought-out opinions. If this resonates with you, make note of your tendencies.

Now that you’ve considered and identified how your culture, upbringing and gender might be holding you back, make a plan to help you overcome your hesitation to speak up. For example, if outright confrontation feels too alien to you, you can still plan to disagree with politeness and tact. Instead of starting a statement with “I think you’re wrong because…” you can practice using phrases like “have we considered [insert opposite opinion for your reasons]…” or “can we take into account [alternate theory]…”

If you’re not ready yet to jump in and share your opinion, commit to yourself that you will use your voice to ask questions, or to recap the ideas that have already been shared, to provoke more discussion.

As well, consider how you can leverage alternate methods of raising your visibility and exerting your influence. Make a plan to raise your prominence and provide yourself opportunities to speak while you continue to work on getting outside your cultural comfort zone. You might try:

  • Signing up for or seeking high visibility projects
  • Making sure to share and report on your projects and accomplishments
  • Making your boss into an advocate

By putting yourself in situations a lot of opportunity to exercise your speaking-up skills, you’ll more quickly expand your comfort zone. Take any occasion afforded to let your superiors know about what you’ve done, what you’re doing and what you’ve gained the company.

Be honest with your boss about the aspects you’ve identified in yourself, above, so that he or she can help you work on stepping beyond your hesitations and learn to speak up. If your superiors know you’re working to better speak for yourself, they’ll also be more eager to help out and advocate on your behalf when you need a hand.


Joel Garfinkle is an executive leadership coach. He has 19 years of firsthand experience working closely with many of the world’s leading companies and brands, including Oracle, Google, Amazon, Deloitte and The Ritz-Carlton. He recently developed a step-by-step career advancement program for a VP, specifically targeting her speaking-up skills. After six months, she received the promotion she’s been denied for three years. He has written seven books, including “Getting Ahead: Three Steps to Take Your Career to the Next Level.” More than 10,000 people subscribe to his Fulfillment@Work newsletter. If you sign up, you’ll receive the free e-book “41 Proven Strategies to Get Promoted Now!”