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Knowing When to Speak Up and When to Shut Up

3 questions to ask before taking a stand.

Key points

  • It is important to take a stand and speak up on issues about which you feel strongly.
  • However, it’s often difficult to know when speaking up will propel or derail your career.
  • Considering your own and other stakeholders' wants and needs will help you decide when to speak up and how to do so effectively.
When to speak up and when to shut up
Source: Sound-On/Pexels

We are encouraged from childhood to stand up for what we believe in. To speak up. To take a stand. However, it is often difficult to know when speaking up, especially in a professional setting, will propel or derail your career. This becomes increasingly important as individuals, businesses, and governments seem more inclined to take a stand and speak up on social issues.

Learning to assess which issues to speak up about, when to do so, and how can make the difference between bringing about the desired effect and triggering a backlash. Social media has enabled vast reach and provides a global platform for individuals to voice their opinions and take a stand. Such platforms previously were the purview of large media organizations. While social media can be powerful in amplifying a stand, it has the potential to cause more harm than good.

When we speak up and advocate about an issue, chances are that we are passionate about that issue. As Steve Jobs said, “It has got to be something that you’re passionate about because otherwise, you won’t have the perseverance to see it through.” We may feel strongly about an issue based on our experience or that of someone we care about. We feel compelled to voice our opinion and bring about change. This initial impetus is typically fueled by feelings and emotions, a sense of right or wrong, and a sense of fairness. In our eagerness, we let our feelings override a rational approach, which may be far more effective in helping us achieve our objective.

 Professor Paul Argenti, used with permission
Paul Argenti, Professor of Corporate Communication, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth.
Source: Professor Paul Argenti, used with permission

Professor Paul Argenti has developed a pioneering approach used by global corporations to think through and decide which issues to take a stand on. Individuals can use a similar approach.

Argenti is a pioneer in the field of corporate communication, a sought-after advisor on crisis communication, and a Professor of Corporate Communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. He is the author of several books, including successful textbooks on Corporate Communication and Corporate Responsibility, as well as the books Digital Strategies for Powerful Corporate Communication, The Power of Corporate Communication, and many articles. He is my go-to expert on strategic communication.

Argenti suggests being clear-eyed about the potential repercussions of taking a stand. There are usually equally passionate parties taking the opposite stand on the issue. They may be equally or more vocal than you. How much confrontation are you willing to accept? Are you dabbling in the issue while the opposition is a category killer with tremendous resources, access, and knowledge about the issue?

He observes that when we are passionate about an issue, we let our feelings override the rational side of the argument. To be effective, he suggests taking a dispassionate view and getting the facts right before taking a public stand.

Argenti suggests asking three simple yet powerful questions to decide on taking a stand and speaking up:

 Paul Argenti and Rahul Bhandari
When to speak up and when to shut up
Source: Source: Paul Argenti and Rahul Bhandari

Are stakeholders interested in this issue?

The first step is to clarify your communication objective for taking a stand on the issue. What do you hope to achieve? Do you want to bring attention to the issue? Do you want your employer to take a stand on the issue? Do you want to mobilize like-minded people around the issue and influence policy? Do your employer’s values align with yours? Are they aligned with the stand you’re taking? An oil company may not be as receptive to your alternative energy stand as a wind-energy company. It's critical to assess the degree of alignment in values, so you have some chance of being heard. If your employer is just not interested in an issue you are passionate about, you may want to reconsider your strategy.

Imagine that you work for a company doing business in Alabama, and you feel strongly that because of the state’s policies on guns and abortion, your company should no longer do any business there. Your boss and other executives may agree that the state’s policies are of concern, but they haven’t considered the effect of that approach on employees like you who feel passionate about these issues. You decide to talk to your boss, and the company conducts an employee survey to get better informed about the issue and ultimately decides that getting out of Alabama is the right thing to do.

Can you meaningfully influence the issue?

Do you play a role in meaningfully influencing the issue? Are you in a position of power to do something about the issue? Maybe you can’t influence an issue directly; can you use influence without authority? How can you gather that influence? Who are the people in power you want to align with your stand, and how can you educate them on the issue and its repercussions? Remember the importance of time and circumstance when deciding to take a stand. Is the issue top of mind, or is it an issue that has already been addressed?

In the same scenario as the first example, you have a job that allows you to influence someone in the company to decide on phasing out of a market. You have done your research and gathered the data to support your stand. You identify the influencers and spend time educating them on the issue. Finally, you explain your argument, and the decision-maker changes the company’s policy after consulting with other stakeholders.

Will your stakeholders agree with you speaking out on the issue?

“Who will get angry as a result?” asks Argenti. Identifying the stakeholders affected by the stand you’re considering taking is essential. Stakeholders may have different interests, take a different stand on the same issue, and be affected differently by the issue. It pays to ask, “What are their arguments?” and “What are the arguments I can make for my cause?” Learn as much about the issue and the points in opposition to your stand, and be prepared to argue against them using key data points that support your position.

Imagine the same scenario as the first example, but your boss tells you that making money is most important. She doesn’t want to anger investors. You decide that the issue is more important than the job and leave to find a company with values that align with your own.

When to speak up
Source: pexels-andrea-piacquadio/Pexels

It is increasingly vital for us to take a stand and to speak truth to power. Learning how to do so effectively and make it count makes the difference between bringing others along to support your point of view. This is a critical skill that anyone can learn. Yet we don’t have to go it alone. If you cannot make a meaningful impact where you are, consider aligning with a group that can and throwing support behind them.

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