Why Is It So Hard to Speak Up at Work?

By Ruchika Tulshyan

Psychological safety is the belief that you can take risks and put forward ideas without facing ridicule or retaliation. More often than not, it’s women — especially women of color — who don’t feel comfortable doing so.


Repost from The New York Times


“I started shutting up, shutting down.” Sacha Thompson was excited to start a new job. The hiring process had been long and grueling, but at long last she’d gotten a call from her soon-to-be boss asking her to lead diversity marketing efforts at a big multinational company. The position was a step up in salary and would include global travel and position her for a leadership role.

The first few months were a “honeymoon,” she said. She was reporting to an influential director and would soon be able to expand her team. At regular check-ins, her manager encouraged her to share her ideas candidly. “I was told, ‘We’re starting a new program and whatever your vision is, we’re open to that,’” Ms. Thompson said, adding that she felt that her manager “really had my back.”

Then the trouble started.

Ms. Thompson heard from several peers that an executive who was sponsoring her program was also criticizing her performance. It was news to her. Because she hadn’t received the feedback directly, she felt she couldn’t go straight to the source to ask the executive how she should adjust her approach.

Despite her boss’s continued encouragement to expand her program as well as her success diversifying the company’s annual conference, Ms. Thompson was starting to feel invisible. She got the feeling that she was being left out of meetings and that her ideas weren’t being heard, despite her deep knowledge about workplace inclusion and her lived experience as a Black woman.

And when her first manager left the company, a new one put her on probation without telling her.

Ms. Thompson constantly felt that she was being silenced. She said she was given little direction on projects and was “shut down if I asked for more information.” She said she didn’t get the direct feedback she felt she needed.

From her perspective, it felt as if “they were trying hard to get me to leave.” “I started shutting up, shutting down,” she said.

What began three years earlier as an exciting new opportunity turned into a job in which she did not feel valued, welcome or safe, she said. She started losing her hair and had stomach issues. It was time to go.

Psychological safety is the belief that you can speak up, take risks and put forward ideas, questions or challenges without facing ridicule or retaliation. Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, has been researching — and has popularized — the idea since it was first written about by the psychologist William Kahn in 1990.

When employees feel safe, they trust that they can admit mistakes, seek feedback or even fail without dire consequences, Dr. Edmondson said. Not only does this lead to greater team success, but it can be lifesaving in certain settings, such as when a nurse challenges a doctor at a critical moment in the neonatal intensive care unit. And even in lower-stakes environments, teams with psychological safety have a higher chance of innovation, growth and expansion and better collaboration, trust and inclusion.

A two-year study at Google found that feeling secure enough to contribute was the most common feature, by far, of high-performing teams. The very nature of innovation requires employees to suggest half-formed ideas, take risks or propose solutions that may not have data to inform them. And that can happen only in an environment in which employees feel secure and safe.

But more often than not, it’s women — and especially women of color — who don’t feel safe in their workplaces.

“When you’re in the numerical minority or different from everybody else, then you’re going to feel pressure to self-censor,” said Modupe Akinola, an associate professor of management at Columbia Business School. “Just by nature of being one of the only makes an environment feel less psychologically safe.” That’s why this issue is magnified for women of color, she said.

Women are less likely than men to speak up without solid data or the conviction that they’re definitely right about what they’re going to say, so they’ll hold back, Dr. Edmondson said. That’s concerning. That women don’t feel secure enough to speak up at critical junctures is problematic for everyone, especially while navigating the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, she said.

Of course, most women experience the double bind of being perceived as either likable or competent when they speak up. But women of color face additional racial stereotypes. Some Black women feel pressured to modulate their tone so they are not perceived as conforming to the harmful “angry Black woman” stereotype, Dr. Akinola said. Several women of color have recently been fired or maligned after criticizing their companies, such as Timnit Gebru, who brought to light A.I. ethics challenges at Google, and Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks, two former Pinterest employees who raised racial discrimination concerns.

“You can imagine that in a psychologically safe environment, this type of feedback or dissent would have been welcomed and the outcome for them would have been dramatically different,” Dr. Akinola said. In a safe environment, leaders would foster an openness to candid feedback and address that feedback, even if they didn’t agree with it, she said.

But far too many women get the message from their companies to toe the line — or else. The virtual environment has worsened the safety problem. Of the female business leaders who responded to a recent survey from Catalyst, nearly half said women faced difficulty in speaking up in virtual meetings. And one in five women reported feeling overlooked or ignored during video meetings. “The virtual environment has reduced the amount of social interactions people have in general,” Dr. Akinola said. When social interactions are hampered, the opportunities to build trust and truly connect — the building blocks of psychological safety — are reduced by the virtual environment, she explained. This is true for all employees, but especially women.

Managers can foster safety by asking themselves the hard questions: Am I hearing some ideas more than others? Have I made sure everyone got a chance to speak?

Organizations can set rules that people don’t interrupt one another in meetings, Dr. Akinola said. Even on the Supreme Court, female justices are interrupted at twice the rate of male justices, one study found.

And leaders can show vulnerability, take risks and model the behaviors that would have more women feeling psychologically safe, she added.

Aiko Bethea, the founder of RARE Coaching and Consulting, said she could recall feeling safe to take risks just once in her career spanning three decades, because her boss modeled vulnerability and welcomed ideas from all employees. That boss was Stacey Abrams.

When Ms. Bethea was working on a new legislative process for the city of Atlanta, she felt trusted to “run with it and do it,” she said, adding that Ms. Abrams “also challenged me to do things that I never would have dreamed of doing — I knew that she would never let me be thrown under the bus.”

“She believed in me and she pushed me,” Ms. Bethea said. “That was the best experience I ever had.”

As for Ms. Thompson, she now advises clients on diversity and inclusion in the workplace; and she urges her clients to work on creating psychologically safe organizations in tandem. “I’ve seen light bulbs go off for leaders who say, ‘Oh, I actually have to make sure, especially in this virtual space, to onboard people properly and to make sure they feel included and valued?’” she said.

“Many women want to contribute and we want to challenge the status quo,” Ms. Thompson said, “but we can’t if we’ve never felt included to begin with.”

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