Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Speak Up

Part of being willing to participate in finding a solution (aka as Whining Avoidance, not to be confused with Whining Adherence Advocate or WAA!) means speaking up when you see something that isn't right. Shouting at somebody that they're a stupid moron (even if true) and venting to like-minded colleagues doesn't count; getting out on a limb and thoughtfully expressing your opinion does.

The first step is to position yourself well for a conversation on whatever it is you see that needs attention. If it's a workplace matter, know that things like good productivity and a history of working well with others give you more credibility to speak up about issues with people who might be higher up on the food chain than you are. If you don't have that kind of credibility to back you up, at least be up front about the things that might detract from your message.

Back in the dark ages when I was still a tech, there was a policy or some matter that I felt the VP of the department needed to know wasn't working. We were all talking about it amongst ourselves but when I really paid attention to what was happening, I was concerned to see that there were folks who wanted to use the bad policy as an excuse for poor work habits and others who had figured out ways to scam the system and weren't interested in making any waves. As a worker with a history of good performance, I figured that it was less likely (even if no guarantee) that speaking up about the issue with the VP would result in my butt out on the pavement.

With that thought, I summoned up the confidence to approach the VP and explained why I was coming forward with the information and what I hoped would happen and what I was willing to do to help. I don't recall that any miraculous changes occurred overnight but the people I spoke up to defend were appreciative and the management staff had the opportunity to see me as someone who was willing to speak up and to articulate well-reasoned arguments.

Let me forewarn you that this strategy is not entirely without risk. Few things that are truly worthwhile are risk-free and each person has to decide how strong their beliefs are and weigh them against the realistic risks and their own level of risk tolerance. The good news is that risks often have their rewards when they are taken in alignment with our beliefs and values. In my case, while I can think of at least one other job where this strategy did not work well for me, in this particular situation I believe it helped position me well for some of the promotions I received later where the ability to have a reasoned dialog on the issues was an important ingredient for success.

That brings me to the other important component in successfully speaking up. Speaking up means engaging in real dialog: back and forth communication where you listen to what the other person has to say and you give them a chance to hear what you have to say in non-offensive terms so that they don't feel backed into a corner. What do they think? Why do they think the way that they do? What kind of common ground can you find?

No matter how far apart you are, I can promise that sane, reasonable people can find something in common. This is not to say that at least one person is not sane or reasonable if common ground cannot be discovered; I would simply take it as a sign that not enough time and effort have yet been spent toward that end. When we really take the time to listen to what other people are thinking, we do find middle ground, that place where both sides have something in common. That area of commonality is important because it provides the foundation from which to start a real conversation... a real dialog as opposed to a shouting match.

This approach works well in politics too. In a country that has become more and more divided in recent years, we may find ourselves in more difficult straits if we don't find a way to remember how to have intelligent discourse on all sides of the issues. We can start by considering the possibility that instead of signifying an ever-worsening condition, the current problems and divisiveness are rather symptoms of a fever about to break. If that notion is more attractive than the continual frustration of wondering how in the world there can be idiots who persist in such wrong-headed thinking, you may be interested in a book called The Politics of Hope - Reviving the Dream of Democracy by Donna Zajonc, a Seattle-area coach who works in the political arena.

Even if you don't speak up about your political views in a public way, I do advocate voting as the quickest, easiest cure for WAA! (whining). If you're registered to vote, I hope that you have already voted in your Primary election today (Washington State) or are making plans to do so before the polls close this evening. Oh, and my personal recommendation is that you not bother with marking up your ballot all wrong just to prove a point that you hate the new primary system. Just do it the way they want you to - to do anything else would be like yelling at the high school burger flipper because the fast food joint you patronize doesn't use organic beef. Talking to someone who can actually do something about it would make more of a difference.

If you're not registered to vote yet, there is still time to register for the General Election. If you're a Washington State resident, you can get a registration form from the Washington State Secretary of State; just be sure you submit it by October 2, 2004. Absentee ballot requests have to be processed through your County Auditor and submitted by September 15, 2004 (in most states - check yours to be sure) for the 2004 General Election in November. If you're not a Washington State resident, chances are good that if you found this site, you're smart enough to do a Google search on voter registration for your state, find out where to get the right forms and figure out the deadlines that apply to you.

What are you saving your voice for?