What Happened When I Started Speaking Up In Meetings

Illustration: havananguyen.com

I learned something important about myself over the past 6 months: I need to speak the fuck up in meetings.

When I first started, I was very quiet in meetings. I thought, “I’m new, so I don’t want to rock the boat,” “Eh, the navigation bar is probably set up like that for a reason, I won’t ask about it,” or “I don’t know about this specific thing so lemme STFU before I look like a total fool.” For 3 weeks, I stayed quiet, simply absorbing the environment. New guy joins the team and in the very first team meeting with him, he voices every single comment, critique, and question I’ve hoarded in my head. Wtf! I should’ve spoken up! Now this guy is getting all the credit … and everyone was wow’ed by him. “This type of critical thinking is exactly why we decided to hired you for this team,” they told him, patting him on the back.

Who knows? Maybe they would have been more receptive to him regardless since he has over a decade of experience whereas I was the rookie. But it also makes me think. Now, I do believe there is some gender bias in the workplace but sometimes, women do things that also hold themselves back. The majority of women I know tend to be a bit more cautious, calculating, and agreeable. While I think that those are good qualities, it also can make women appear less knowledgeable or less of a leader.

Watch a group of men talk. Men don’t just “mansplain” to women, men “mansplain” to other men! From the Economist’s “Why Men Interrupt”:

Leaving the conversation [Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University] realised that she had just played the embarrassing subordinate role in the scenarios where she was the expert.
But Ms Tannen says “the reason is not — as it seems to many women — that men are bums who seek to deny women authority.” Instead, she says, “the inequality of the treatment results not simply from the men’s behavior alone but from the differences in men’s and women’s styles.
In Ms Tannen’s schema, men talk to determine and achieve status. Women talk to determine and achieve connection. To use metaphors, for men life is a ladder and the better spots are up high. For women, life is a network, and the better spots have greater connections.

One of the most valuable insights I got from my friend Hamood Alali is this metaphor: conversation is like a ball game. Depending on the culture, the personalities, and the group dynamics, that game can be:

  • Tennis, i.e. complete sentences bounce back and forth between people
  • Basketball, i.e. people spontaneously but naturally picking up the topic as it bounces and shifts around multiple people
  • Bowling, i.e. people take turns and everyone gets ample time to plan what they say and complete their sentences
  • Rugby, where everyone is clamoring to get their say and sentences get cut off all the time

More often than not, women withhold their comments in a group setting. And end up bowling in a rugby field.

There has been a stark contrast before and after this personal revelation happened. Before, those in leadership just kinda shoved off grunt work onto me and pigeonholed me as a strong visual designer but I didn’t get to do a ton of UX strategy stuff like I wanted. After I was driven by that guy to speak up more, I started being [diplomatically] vocal about my questions, comments, observations, criticisms, and ideas. I have even pushed BACK on push-back, pointed out flaws in the system, and questioned certain projects. (Of course, it helps to have an upbeat demeanor and ideas for solutions)

Yesterday, I learned from a higher-up that a lot of people had started seeing me as a thought-leader and that the managers here had “severely underestimated me.” I am blown away by it, honestly, because I don’t feel drastically different. Simply speaking up transformed the perception of me. But it also makes me sad for other smart people who don’t speak up. When I try to ask peers why they don’t speak up, they mostly tell me that they don’t feel like they have anything to offer, they don’t want to annoy their colleagues, or they figure they will be dismissed anyway.

It’s true, people will not always be receptive to your comments. It’s also true that people cannot read minds (if you can, that’s incredible … also, stay away from me). Here is my personal advice on speaking up:

Sometimes, just asking questions can be helpful.

Even if you don’t have the answers, sometimes you can ask a question that no one has ever considered before. I advocate asking questions rather than pushing suggestions right away. I have been annoyed before by a new team member’s overly enthusiastic recommendations before. “Oh, you should just host this whole product on the cloud! It will be way cheaper!”

It demonstrates a shallowness in problem-solving. It assumes that the team has never thought about it before and it assumes that that would be the right course of action. Instead, I would ask, “So it seems that running the product on the servers has been expensive and a hassle to maintain. Is there a reason why we’ve kept it on those servers and have we considered migrating to a cloud platform?”

Asking questions invites discussion and it is more respectful as well. It allows you to download even more context and information about the project, which will ultimately aid in effective solutions.

Are you confused by anything? Concerned about anything?

Image: Markesha from KamikazeComic.com

Then speak up. You may be seeing a problem that others aren’t seeing. My comic team and I struggled with this in the very early days of making Kamikaze. In the protagonist’s early suit design, the protagonist wore a hood. This iteration survived 3–4 weeks but I had this concern about the hood hiding the most distinguishing features of her design: her dreadlocks. The dreadlocks make her silhouette unique and they can be used to indicate and enhance movement. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to rock the boat and I second-guessed myself.

Obviously, I did finally say something. I wish I had spoken up earlier, though, so we didn’t spend so much time and energy on the hood design. Voicing your concerns can save a company valuable resources. Teams are great because you can tackle a problem from multiple angles.

But what if people dismiss you? Well, I find that backing your concerns and ideas up with information helps.

Learn how to explain your thought process.

If you do have a concern, idea, or comment, what were the series of thoughts that led up to that? When I say back your comments up with information, I am not even suggesting backing it up with tons of research and statistics. You aren’t defending a thesis here. If you want the button to be a brighter red, then at least offer a reason. Is it to stay on brand? Is it because usability tests or A/B testing has shown that users respond more favorably to that brighter red? Does the brighter red show up better across different screens? Is that shade of red a better accent or complementary color to the rest of the site? Do we need the red because the button indicates a destructive action, such as “cancel” or “delete?”

If someone asks, “Why do you think the button should be red?” and you have no other reason than “I just think it looks better” or “I just don’t like the current color” then your suggestion is invalid. On the flipside of thinking through your suggestions and requests, you must also be open to conceding to others’ input if their reasons are better for accomplishing the overall project goal. Office politics turn ugly when the will of specific individuals supersede the actual project. Are you implementing something because it is honestly good for the project or is it because Important Person™ said so?

Ask yourself: does this actually contribute to the conversation?

There is a problem with speaking up just to speak up. You end up looking like a total tool. Contributing doesn’t mean you always have to pitch innovative, brilliant ideas. Questions and concerns are productive contributions. However, if you are speaking up just to parrot other people’s ideas (Yup, what she said! I agree with that! She has a great suggestion.), or brown-nose (Great idea, boss!), or just to show off, that can irritate others in the room.

Be respectful and positive

I don’t think this needs to be a hard rule but I bring it upon myself to hold back criticism unless I have a potential solution. Any solution. It doesn’t even have to be the route everyone takes but provide some sort of suggestion that people can take and modify or spur off other ideas. When you just say “I just don’t like it” without bringing reasons or suggestions, it just wastes people’s time. I have never seen that type of comment turn into anything productive.

And be respectful. Don’t just assume someone’s an idiot, try to at least ask questions first and see where they are coming from. They may still end up being an idiot but at least you tried to understand.

But anyways, my point overall is to speak up. No one can read your mind. And if you are a manager, don’t just allow the loudest voices to reach you. Ask and extract opinions and ideas from the shy ones too. Confidence does not always equal competence. The best thing about working on a team is that you escape the echo chamber and limited perspective in your head. It doesn’t do any good for anyone to stay quiet on a team.