Speaking up

I was recently in a meeting with an entrepreneur and his team. We were talking about how to solve a problem that the company was facing, and most of the discussion was taking place between the entrepreneur and me. The team wasn’t speaking up.

I therefore turned around to the team members, and said that I wanted to hear each of their thoughts on the issue at hand. Unsurprisingly, they had a wide variety of opinions including valuable approaches to the problem that the entrepreneur and I hadn’t thought of.

The reason why they weren’t speaking up was because they thought that they didn’t have the right to speak up. They weren’t a founder or an investor and were therefore shy to express themselves. They saw founders and investors as being of a higher social standing than themselves and therefore believed that we would have all the right answers.

This hierarchical way of thinking about the world is dangerous. It is a barrier to the cognitive diversity necessary for different perspectives to be voiced, each perspective to be judged based on its merits, and the best decision to be made. In fact, in its absence, it’s very easy for people of a similar social standing to uncritically agree with each other’s proposals in order to not appear like they’re threatening their counterpart’s equal social standing.

More often than not, the reason why someone has a higher social standing in an organization is simply because of the number of years that they’ve been there. This can be correlated with knowledge, but it’s also correlated with a belief in a certain way of doing things that can be outdated.

So break the social norms. If you’re the junior in the room, speak out. Remember that each senior in the room was once a junior feeling exactly the way you did. After you speak up, be comfortable with the knowledge that those who are looking at you critically don’t matter, and those who matter appreciated hearing your ideas.

And if you’re the senior in the room, get the junior to speak out. They’ll be grateful for the opportunity and be motivated to work that much harder.