The moment often passes before you realize what’s happening: You’re in a meeting when a colleague says something that makes you uncomfortable. They meant to be funny, but the comment is inappropriate. You’re stunned. Should you speak up?
The meeting goes on, but you keep thinking about what they said. Did you misunderstand the situation? Are you overreacting?
Women and people in minority groups have dealt with this inner dialogue for decades, some vocally and others quietly. Today, as awareness of workplace inequity and discrimination grows, more people are speaking up.
Men and members of other majority groups are being forced to confront uncomfortable realities about acceptable behavior in the workplace. But instead of advocating for women and other minorities, some of those in positions of power are leaning out.
Bernice Ledbetter, EdD, believes the reason more people don’t speak up to become advocates is “a kind of parity of fear.”
Ledbetter is practitioner faculty of organizational theory and management and director of the Center for Women in Leadership at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, and she works specifically with men in the workplace.
“[There’s a] general sense of, ‘I’m not sure how I’m going to be perceived, so I better not say anything,’” she said.
If businesses want to continue making progress, experts say they’ll need all voices in this conversation. By encouraging all team members to contribute to these initiatives, companies build cultures of trust and respect.
Business@Pepperdine explored common fears around speaking up and how team members—in both majority and minority groups—can overcome them.
Four Fears About Speaking Up and How to Overcome Them
It’s not my place.
Members of a majority group may hesitate to get involved in diversity and equity efforts because they lack what organizational psychologists call “psychological standing.” In other words, they feel it’s “not their place” to speak up—even if they care deeply about the causes themselves.
What Can Help?
Learn and listen (for those in a majority group).
It is your place to support initiatives you believe in, even if you don’t have firsthand experience with workplace discrimination or inequity. Still, remember that you are not an expert on other people’s experiences. Instead of trying to come up with a new solution, amplify the initiatives that already exist. Find out what efforts are already in progress and where your influence could actually help.
Model good behaviors (for managers, executives, and senior officials).
A manager can make speaking up the norm rather than the exception or a cause for anxiety. Speaking specifically about the gender dynamic in the workplace, Ledbetter said progress requires “senior men modeling the way of how to interact productively and positively and professionally with women.” That goes for any senior position, of any identity. A manager can give direct reports an example to emulate, helping them feel more secure in their actions.
Offer an explicit invitation (for those in a minority group).
Invite those who don’t feel they belong at the table to join it. Affirm the appropriateness of their voices in the conversations and highlight their stakes in the issue. It’s important to remember that there’s also a time and place for groups made up only of those in a minority.
People will have negative opinions.
People are likely to have strong reactions when you speak up for a group or cause in which you have no personal stake. Your well-intentioned actions may be met with surprise, suspicion, or even anger.
Expect emotions (for those in a majority group).
Discrimination and harassment are painful realities for many people, and having conversations about workplace equity can stir up unpleasant memories. These emotions, though they may be directed at you, are not ultimately about you. They are about a larger societal problem that you and your majority group may benefit from.
Remain present for your colleagues’ pain (for those in a majority group).
Stay in the room, even if staying is uncomfortable. Listen and let the person in pain talk. Tell them that you hear them.
I’ll be misunderstood.
Those in a majority group may struggle to speak up in places they do not have psychological safety—the freedom to speak and act and be oneself without fear of negative consequences.
“Some are reluctant to speak up to assist women in the career advancement for fear of being misunderstood,” Ledbetter said. When anyone in a work environment feels they don’t have the standing to speak up, everyone misses out on opportunities to form meaningful relationships with colleagues and mentors.
What Can Help
Practice articulating why you care (for those in a majority group).
Explaining why you are offering support in order to make your motives clear.
“Likely [your] attitudes and beliefs are driven by experiences and data,” said Rebecca Ratner, a psychologist and business professor at the University of Maryland. By providing this reasoning, you can prevent misunderstanding.
I’ll say the wrong thing.
Today, there is a greater public awareness and acknowledgment that harassment, discrimination, and microaggressions happen. While this is a positive development overall, Ledbetter worries that we are creating a culture of fear around speaking up—and this could prevent those in positions of influence from speaking up at all.
Be equitable and unbiased with corrections (for everyone).
Anyone can be objectified or put down by others’ words, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. We all need to be held to the same standard of respect.