Earlier this year, we partnered with our friends at VitalSmarts on a webinar about the cost of failing to voice concerns in the workplace. The results of their study were astonishing: Each failed conversation costs an average of $7,500 in time and resources, and employees waste seven days or more. While the cost of silence can be shocking, I recently came across another VitalSmarts study that examines the cost of speaking up, especially for women in the workplace.
This study found that "women’s perceived competency drops by 35 percent and their perceived worth by $15,088 when they are equally as assertive or forceful as their male colleagues.” Wow! That could be a very high price to pay for speaking up assertively at work. How can you create an environment so that all employees, especially women, feel safe to raise concerns about common issues like disrespectful or incompetent colleagues or managers, fatal flaws in project plans, or lack of clarity on roles and goals?
While this is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed on a societal level, there are things that leaders and individuals in companies can do to reduce backlash against women who speak up assertively at work. Here are a few of the recommendations from the VitalSmarts study.
5 Ways Leaders Can Create a Safe Place for Women to Speak Up
- 1. Open the Discussion: Don’t brush gender inequality under the rug. Share the findings from this study and invite the team to brainstorm circumstances in which emotional inequality and social backlash for speaking up are likely. “Discuss the implications this research has for the day-to-day operations in your workplace.”
- 2. Lead the Way: "Take concrete actions that show commitment to counteract the implicit bias women face in the workplace.” In difficult conversations, acknowledge that implicit bias against women takes place and express a commitment to eradicating it in your workplace.
- 3. Change the Norm: "The norm in most organizations is to focus on the content of what people are saying and to avoid discussing any strong emotions they are showing.” Instead, acknowledge strong emotions and ask about them. Give the person the opportunity to clean up misunderstandings about their intent. Maybe they are just passionate about an issue, not out of control as you might assume if you don’t ask.
- 4. Create Times and Places: "Create times, places, and circumstances where speaking forcefully is expected—even required.” This will reduce the tendency to assume the other person has lost control and give permission for everyone on the team to speak from the heart about the issue at hand.
- 5. Invest in Skill Building: "Training can be a powerful way to help others learn the skills they need in order to create conversational safety.” Our team has gone through Crucial Conversations training a few times, and I can’t recommend it enough. Being armed with the right skills to have a difficult conversation is a powerful gift to give your team and one that your company’s bottom line will benefit from as well.
Have other ideas for creating safety for women to be assertive and thrive in the workplace? Join the conversation by attending our Women in Leadership Panel discussion at our Breakthrough Conference in October.
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