Speaking your truth at work. Oof. Such a simple sentence and yet, from front line workers to C level executives it seems nearly everyone I work with as a coach has the same fear: speaking their truth in the workplace.
I know this fear well, as I have had my own journey towards full authenticity in the workplace. I know all the anxiety that comes with it. I know how frightening those first steps can feel. And I know how impactful it is – to yourself and others – when you fully own your truth.
At this point, you might be asking… How can I start speaking my truth at work? How can I say what needs to be said? How can I speak up when I see a problem? How can I voice my opinions openly and professionally?
Is it possible? And… Do I really need to do it?
Why Truth is Hard in the Workplace
For centuries, possibly even millenia, people have defined respect as treating someone like an authority figure, and have seen authority figures as people who lay out the rules for all of us to follow.
It’s a lot like how many of us grew up. Our parents, teachers, coaches and so on were the authority figures who called the shots, and we were expected to show respect by doing what we were told and not questioning that authority.
It became our understanding of how the world is. So, it’s understandable that in the workplace – those places in adulthood where we most encounter authority figures – our childhood fear of speaking up resurfaces. We don’t want to get in trouble. We don’t want to be judged. We don’t want to upset anyone, make anyone angry, have anyone think less of us…
The voices inside us that hold us back are called our Gremlins, or Saboteurs. They are the voices that say not to rock the boat. They also tell us we’re being respectful when we hold back our truth; that we are keeping ourselves safe, keeping the peace, being realistic, or whatever lies they tell to keep us in our comfort zones.
What if we stopped listening to them? What if, instead, we defined respect as treating people like human beings?
What if, instead of letting the Gremlins speak, we said things to ourselves like…
- “When I approach others as though their minds are open, I am respecting them.”
- “When I shed light on potential problems, I am respecting the people around me by assuming they are open to co-creating solutions.”
- “When I approach conflict from a place of curiosity, I am respecting others by understanding that they have an inner experience I know nothing about.”
- “When I take an issue to management or HR, I am respecting the organization by not allowing the issue to fester and become bigger.”
- “When I ask for clarity, I’m respecting my need to fully understand expectations, and respecting the organization’s need for everyone to be on the same page.”
- “When I share my unique ideas or opinions, I am respecting myself, my colleagues and the organization by bringing all parts of myself forward to do the best work I possibly can.”
Our fear of speaking out comes from a valid place in that all feelings are valid. It’s what we do with the fear that matters most. Do we lead from it or do we learn from it?
Learning From Fear vs. Leading From Fear
When you lead from your fear, you let it make the decisions in your life. It guides your path.
When you learn from it, you lead from your highest self. Your inner leader is a perpetual learner, continuously striving to reach higher and higher levels through the lessons life has to bring.
Face your fear, head on, and examine it from all sides. Meditate on it. Journal about it. Consider where it comes from and how it is serving you in life right now.
- “Is the fear leading towards what I truly want, or is it holding me in status quo?”
- “What outcome am I truly afraid of?”
- “What story am I telling myself about why not to have this conversation?
Where there’s fear, there’s a part of you that needs to heal. Get curious about your own fears and learn from them. You can’t change things by ignoring fear or trying to shove it aside. You create real change by leaning into what scares you.
What Happens When You Speak Your Truth at Work?
Truth always leads to more truth. That’s why it is so important to speak our truth, especially at work.
When you commit to speaking truth from a heart of peace – a heart that leads with curiosity, compassion and courage, rather than blame, shame and judgement – you free yourself from all those limiting beliefs and old patterns that have consistently held you back, AND you create a safe space for others to bring their truth forward.
The more people speak their truth in a way that is respectful – remembering that respect means treating people as human beings – the more psychological safety is cultivated within the corporate culture.
What does it mean to have psychological safety at work? It means knowing that you, too, will be met with that definition of respect. It can mean, for example, that when you make a mistake you feel confident owning that mistake, knowing that it will open up a solutions-focused discussion, not punishment or shame. It can mean never thinking twice about sharing an idea because you know that all ideas are met with respectful consideration. It can mean never wasting energy keeping yourself “safe” from blame, gossip or any other toxic behaviours. It can mean asking for help or guidance without worrying that someone might question your competence.
When we feel safe to speak our truth, we are all able to move forward with courage and clarity.
Who Can Lead a Truth Shift?
Creating this kind of shift within an organization is most effective when it is led by those in leadership positions but, the fact is, it can be driven by anyone at any level.
As I said, truth leads to more truth. Often, all it takes is one person committing to leading themselves from truth for others to start stepping into their own truth.
This is what it means to be the change you want to see. If you want your organization to be one of authenticity, then commit to being authentic by speaking your truth.
When it Backfires
Let’s say you start speaking your truth more and more at work. You do so respectfully and professionally (don’t worry, I’ll be getting to how to do that soon). And it backfires.
No one else is rising up to meet you. The energy is shifting and it isn’t in a positive direction.
Isn’t that… a good thing? You deserve a workplace environment that empowers you to thrive within the organization. That isn’t selfish. That isn’t entitlement. That’s a basic human need AND of great value to any organization. Organizations are driven by the people within them and they are most successful when they fully support the people within them.
So, if you start speaking your truth and it backfires, that’s a very clear, very loud signal that this is not the organization for you and it’s time to start planning your exit strategy. Life needs to go on, bills need to be paid, families need to be supported. You may not be able to just quit and move on and that’s ok. Just don’t settle. You may not be able to leave today, but what can you do today?
Start exploring your options, fixing up your CV, expanding your skills and knowledge, and getting clear on what you truly do want. You cannot thrive where you cannot be YOU.
What it Looks Like to Speak Your Truth in Professional Relationships
So, you’re ready to speak your truth at work. Now what? How do you do that in a way that is professional and respectful?
Let’s think about it this way: respect means to honour the human; professional means to honour the organization.
Here are some examples of what that could look like:
- “I spotted a potential roadblock in this plan. I know a lot of work went into this and I really want to see it succeed. Do you have a minute to hear my concerns?”
- “We seem to be butting heads on this timeline. I know the company has a set goal for getting this done, and I see that you have some concerns about that. Tell me what you’re experiencing?”
- “I know the company is going through a challenging time and I want to be a part of working through that. The problem is, I’ve been putting in too many evening and weekend hours. I feel like I’m burning out and like I can’t bring my best to this role without time to recharge. Can we discuss some options?”
- “When I had the chance to partner with the other department a few weeks ago, I felt really energized by the work they’re doing. I think I might have a lot to contribute and I wonder if you would be open to me partnering with them again, and perhaps growing my career in that direction long term?”
- “I’ve been thinking about the vision I hold for the organization and want to ensure it’s fully aligned with the corporate vision, or if I need to make adjustments. Do you have a moment to help me get clarity?”
- “I had an idea. From my perspective, it’s in line with our objectives for this year, but I realize I may have blind spots I’m not aware of. Can I get your feedback on it?”
You’ll notice that all of these conversation openers are rooted in curiosity and open up to anything being possible.
When we use phrases like, “You always disagree with me,” or “That won’t work,” or “I can’t work like this anymore,” what we do is we shut down possibilities. We draw a line in the sand that puts others on the defensive. You aren’t a safe space, but are someone to stay safe from.
The curiosity approach, on the other hand, is confident, strong, compassionate, co-creative, respectful and professional.
15 Tips & Mindset Shifts to Prepare for Workplace Truth
- Remember that you were hired in your role for a reason. That reason includes your skills, qualities, experience and perspective. Staying quiet does not honour that reason.
- Fear is normal. Confront your fear and learn from it so that it has no power to lead you. Leading from fear keeps everything status quo. Learning from fear and leading from truth is how change is created. If you’re struggling to clearly identify the exact fear Gremlins you’re dealing with, this assessment can help.
- Learn to embrace conflict because conflict itself is not the real enemy. Avoiding conflict is. When you learn to embrace conflict as a growth opportunity, it starts to lose some of the fear it usually brings with it, and empowers you and those around you to truly move forward.
- Ask yourself, “What story am I telling myself that’s holding me in status quo?” Write the story out if it helps you get clarity. Then ask, “How can I retell this story in an empowering way?”
Here’s an example of what I mean: You have always told yourself that only difficult people disagree with their boss and that if you want to keep your job and do well, you need to just keep your head down.
To retell that in an empowering way, you might start telling yourself that speaking your truth feels scary, but is really just a skill to be learned and you are a person who is capable of learning. You’ve been letting your fear lead you for too long and you are ready to start practicing this new skill in order to create change in your life.
- Forget about the consequences. The fact is, you don’t know how your truth will be received.You might fear your boss thinking you’re incompetent if you ask for clarity, but more often than not, it sends the message that you’re truly invested in aligning your efforts with corporate vision and objectives. Your unique idea might not be put into practice, but it will give others the opportunity to look at things from a different perspective and see even more possibilities. Your boss might be busy and overscheduled, but will likely welcome the opportunity to connect and get insight into how things are really going. And if your truth isn’t welcomed with respect… is that really the environment you want to spend your precious energy on? An environment where truth isn’t honoured?When you dwell on imagined consequences, that’s your fear trying to lead you. Be brave and let your heart lead you.
- Be intentional. What that means is, you have to intentionally create new rituals and routines for yourself in order to embed any new skill into your day to day life. Hiding your truth is simply a habit; an old pattern that can be broken and replaced. You learned that habit over many years and from many experiences, so it is expected that it will take intentional practices and daily reminders to embed a new, healthier habit.Find some way to work the new habit into your daily thinking. This could be part of your morning ritual, an hourly alarm to check in with your emotions, a string tied to your wrist as a visual cue to connect with your truth in the moment, a nightly journaling session to note all the times you spoke your truth throughout the day and how it felt… whatever practice works for you.
- Give mindfulness and meditation a genuine try. Speaking your truth can take a lot of emotional energy in the moment. Regular mindfulness and meditation practices keep your emotional energy fueled up and train your brain to notice what’s coming up in the moment, so that you can respond consciously, rather than react unconsciously.When you have the emotional energy stores to calm the knee-jerk reactions, you can take control of your response, ensuring it is both respectful and professional, and that it aligns with your values and what you want to create for yourself.
- Tune into your gut. Literally. Our bodies will often alert us to our truth before our brains are consciously aware of it. When something shifts or twinges in your body, take a moment with that feeling. What was happening in that moment? What is it trying to tell you? What truth do you need to hear?
- Get clear on the boundaries you need to feel safe in your truth. Truth is human and anything human is worthy of safety. Get clear on what that means for you and what boundaries you may need to set or strengthen.
- Be open to change and disagreement. Your truth is not everyone else’s. Just as your truth is worthy of respect, their truth is worthy of respect. Listen more than you speak. Get curious. Hear what’s being said and what’s not being said.
- Lean into the “worst case” scenario. Really, what’s the worst that could happen? They disagree with you? They don’t like what you have to say? Is that really so bad? At least you will have said what you needed to say. Your conscience is clear. You can move forward.If your worst case scenario is that you will be demoted or fired, you have to believe that this organization is not aligned with your values and it’s best to move to one that is. You can’t thrive where truth is unwelcome.
- Stretch yourself in non-conflict moments. It’s even harder to create a new habit if you only practice it when the stress is high, so commit to stretching your new “truth muscles” in the everyday moments. Say one thing you wouldn’t normally say every day. This will help train those muscles so that when the need for truth is highest, you have built up the strength to step into it.
- Remember that you are responsible for your intention and how you show up. You are not responsible for anyone’s reaction. It is disrespectful to respond to someone’s truth with blame, shame, judgement or any other toxic behaviours. If someone is disrespectful to you, that is their weakness to confront, not your responsibility to make right or tip toe around.
- Get comfortable with vulnerability. The fact is, truth feels vulnerable. It’s open, raw and not shrouded in all our self-protective habits and patterns. When someone is unkind in the face of our truth, it can hurt deeply. But here’s another fact: it hurts a lot less, and for a much shorter time than the persistent pain of shoving our truth aside day after day, year after year.
- Be willing to stretch beyond your comfort zone, and be okay if it gets “messy”. Have you ever watched someone fix a car? Often, they have to take things apart and it gets really messy and greasy for a while until the problem is fixed, the mess is cleaned up, and the car is running smoothly again. Mess is nothing to fear as long as you’re willing to see it through. Take 100% responsibility for your world. Your truth opened up a whole can of worms? Good. It probably needed to be opened. Now stay with it. Help sort through the muck and clean up. See. It. Through.
As humans, we learn through our lived experience, and we are all in various states of growth and change. Respect in all areas of life – work included – demands that we honour the human experience. Commit to creating a new lived experience for yourself – one that grows you in the direction of empowerment and self-leadership.
If you would like help getting clarity on your truth and building the confidence to bring it forward with professionalism and respect, I invite you to connect with me.
This is part 1 of a 3-part blog series on speaking your truth at work. In part 2, we’ll explore how you can use mental models to get even greater clarity on the stories holding you in status quo, and how to use those models to create new stories for yourself. Part 3 will specifically guide those in leadership roles on how to cultivate cultures of truth and respect, and the value that brings to organizational success.