case study

Speaking Up Effectively

In a recent team meeting, we talked about how our circle of influence is different—wider—than our circle of responsibility. This reminded me of something I posted three years ago almost to the day, so I decided to re-post it here, to remind myself to “speak up” outside my role—but to do so appropriately.


In our department, we’re constantly encouraged to “Speak Up” as one of our core “cultural beliefs.” Sounds straightforward enough. But what factors affect how and when you should speak up? After being asked to present some thoughts on this topic to our design team, I decided that a lot of it depends on my role, how much I really know, and who I’m talking to. As in so many things, Context is King. Here’s a diagram of how I broke it down:

My Role. The first thing to ask is whether the thing I want to address falls within the responsibilities of my role. Not that I can’t speak up outside my role – in fact sometimes that is when it is most important, because within my role I have greater freedom of action anyway. Within my role, I can often dispense with talk – I just decide and do (though if I’m smart, I will clearly explain my decisions to those who care). When I speak up outside my role on the other hand, I am necessarily treading on someone else’s turf; if I want to be effective, I’d better watch my tone and respect their role, even if I’m an expert.

What I Know. The next thing to ask is how much I really know about the topic I want to address. Sometimes, especially within my role, I know a lot; I can be more confident, assertive, and insistent. I can propose, decide, and strongly advise. But sometimes I don’t know that much – even within (hopefully small) areas of my own role. That should change the way I communicate; I should be asking questions, taking feedback, helping others brainstorm, generating ideas for my own or others’ exploration.

Others’ Roles. Sometimes an issue is clearly my responsibility, but often it falls under another role or into a shared stewardship. “Speaking Up” in this case calls for diplomacy and negotiation. This is true even if I happen to know more about the subject at hand; I can propose solutions, but can’t run roughshod over another co-owner. Likewise, if I don’t know as much as the other person, it is still my job to carefully consider and ratify decisions relating to my role; I can’t abdicate my responsibility and then point a finger the other way if things go wrong.

Others’ Knowledge. Sometimes other people know more than me – even within my own role. This is where humility and the ability to take counsel is needed. “Speaking Up” here might mean asking for help when I need it. On the other hand, sometimes others know less than me – even within their role. Effective persuasion is key.


When I look at how these factors overlap, I realize that “speaking up” effectively is a lot more nuanced (or should be more nuanced) than just always “speaking your mind.” Depending on the context, “speaking up” could mean pronouncing, proposing, advising, negotiating, questioning, reviewing & ratifying, or even admitting that I don’t know everything I should. (In fact, this last can be the most courageous and important form of “speaking up”.)

Of course – as my team pointed out today – all of this begs the question of whether something is even worth discussion. If it’s not important, if the right people are not in the room, or if the time just isn’t right, then don’t Speak Up – just Shut Up, at least for now.

posted by Ted Boren on Thursday, Sep 17, 2009
tagged with role, communication, knowledge, cooperation, collaboration