Author Talks: The magic of unmuting yourself

Speaking up is vital to advancing meaningfully in our careersyet many of us have made a habit of keeping quiet. In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Lucia Rahilly chats with Elaine Lin Hering, author, facilitator, and speaker, about her new book, Unlearning Silence: How to Speak Your Mind, Unleash Talent, and Live More Fully (Penguin Random House, March 2024). Hering explores why we often choose silence, how we inadvertently silence others, and how to find the voice you didn’t know you had. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

Over the years, I’ve taught negotiation skills, had difficult conversations, and dealt with feedback, and I saw the same pattern: people weren’t willing to negotiate. Despite incredible financial, time, and energy investment from companies and leaders, we still aren’t willing to have challenging discussions.

There’s hesitation around both ends of feedback, no matter how much a manager or HR suggests we provide or receive it. Why is that? Leaders often encourage employees on their teams to “speak up.” That was the advice that I always heard.

That advice often boils down to having more confidence and courage; we believe the problem is us. “If you could fix yourself, we could promote you, and you’ll be heard.”

I found that advice to be unsatisfying and irresponsible.

I wanted an accurate diagnosis of the situation. I began asking, “Why don’t people speak up? Why don’t they want to negotiate, and why don’t they want to have difficult conversations?”

If we want to speak up and negotiate, we need to unlearn how we’ve internalized silence and how it has become habitual.

The answer is that we’ve learned silence. We’ve been rewarded for it in our careers. If we want to speak up and negotiate, we need to unlearn how we’ve internalized silence and how it has become habitual. We must make it visible. Additionally, well-intentioned leaders must recognize how they inadvertently silence the people they claim to support.

What are the costs to leaders when employees stay silent at work?

People often choose to stay silent rather than speak up because that’s the behavior they usually see. We don’t want to rise above or stick out more than everyone around us.

The real question within a team or an organization is, “Have we built a culture of silence?”

If a junior team member or a new employee identifies that no one else pushes back, asks questions, or disagrees with the leader, they won’t be encouraged to do so either.

Silence leads to conformity, mimicry, and groupthink—the things that we want to avoid. Instead, we want the ability to correct course early on rather than when things blow up. Our patterns of behavior don’t support or reward having a voice.

Fundamentally, you can’t have effective collaboration, innovation, or a healthy team if the people you lead feel silenced.

A leader who goes without hearing other people’s voices often lives in a skewed sense of reality. There’s an absence of listening across differences of opinion or communication styles. When this happens, they don’t have access to the essential information and data that helps them make informed, sound decisions.

Fundamentally, you can’t have effective collaboration, innovation, or a healthy team if the people you lead feel silenced.

Who tends to talk at work, and who elects to remain silent?

Silence disproportionately impacts people who have subordinated identities in an organization. Dominant identities, such as founders, the CEO, and the leadership team, are the majority.

In corporate America, White cis[gender]1 men often hold dominant identities, and if you don’t fit that mold, then you’re perpetually “othered.” If you carry a subordinated identity, you’re more likely to be challenged, not invited, and doubted, just because you’re different.

We haven’t yet been able to embrace that difference, which can be a strength, but it’s only a strength if we can listen to those differences, appreciate them, and reward them. One subordinated identity in corporate America is women; we see this in McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2023 report.

We also see intersectionality regarding gender, race, ability, class, and education. If you don’t fit into the dominant norms, you don’t necessarily know the implicit rules unless they become explicit. You’re more likely to be othered, and when you do speak up, you’re likely considered unreliable. All of these factors incline us toward silence and make it attractive. I’ve talked with many women of color who say, “I did speak up, then I lost tenure,” or “I spoke up and was never promoted.”

If you’re standing in a system that’s already more tenuous because of your identities, it’s riskier for you to speak up, not only in the workplace. Most of us have learned to be silent through our education, through our families, and through navigating the world in the bodies we have.

Most of us have learned to be silent through our education, through our families, and through navigating the world in the bodies we have.

We’ve learned along the way that it’s not safe to speak at work, even if a manager encourages it. If we look around and see that other team members don’t speak up, we conclude that we should just blend in. We also consider our past experiences: “At my last job, my manager suggested speaking up, and when I did, it didn’t go over so well.”

The experience of White cis[gender] men suggests the opposite. They say, “I spoke up, and it made a difference. Everything was OK.”

There’s less inhibition and less perceived cost for speaking up depending on your dominant identities. Those with subordinated identities don’t have that same experience of speaking up, being heard, making a difference, and being rewarded for it. It’s a system that inclines people with subordinated identities toward silence.

How can leaders foster a workplace where people feel comfortable speaking up?

Leaders are in a difficult position. How do you know if you’re silencing people or if people are telling you the truth—rather than telling you what they think you want to hear?

A leader should express the intent to hear the truth, but intent only goes so far. To get more candid opinions from the team, they must normalize differences and dissent.

A quick and easy way to do so is by asking standard questions. For example, instead of asking people what they think, ask, “What works or doesn’t work about this idea?,” “What are the pros and cons?,” or “What concerns do you have?” These types of questions intentionally invite differences in perspective.

Leaders can also share strategic stories about how a team member spoke up and made an impact. This injects a data point that speaking up is rewarded. Of course, actions speak the loudest. Do you hear people when they speak? Do you reward their behavior?

When should we remain silent?

Unlearning silence doesn’t mean you should say something all the time. Those of us who choose or utilize silence know that there’s utility in doing so.

Choosing silence allows you to pause and select an appropriate response, instead of rushing to a reaction. It gives us space between stimulus and response. Both allow us to be intentional, but it’s also a survival strategy and tactic.

Silence is necessary for your self-care and well-being. You should set boundaries for yourself and take inventory of the bandwidth you have for a given day.

We have day jobs. As a lawyer, I must get that brief done. As a product manager, I must deliver. As a leader, I must come up with a strategy. We’re busy, so when there’s a difficult conversation, ask yourself, “Do I need to take that on today?”

There’s also the calculated short-term silence. In the book, I use the example of a medical resident who needs to finish their residency before they can have the social and professional capital to speak up and influence the system.

The same thing is true for many. “When I reach the VP level, I think I’ll have enough power and influence to change things and lead differently.” The challenge is that the higher you rise in an organization, the more you’re indoctrinated into a system, and the less you’re able to identify the power differential.

Power is invisible to those who have it. The question I invite us all to ask is, “Are we playing the long game, in which short-term silence makes sense for the long-term game, or are we avoiding the issue?”

The difference between strategic silence and oppressed silence is agency. Are you choosing to remain silent for your self-care or because that’s the only choice for you to keep your seat at the table?

What does ‘finding your voice’ mean?

Many of us move through life by solving other people’s problems. I rarely asked myself, “What do I think?,” or “What do I feel?” Even during client–customer meetings, I often thought about what my manager or leadership would do and how I could toe the party line.

If it’s on the family front, we think about what our parents would say. All those expectations are deeply ingrained in us, and one day, we wake up and ask ourselves, “Do I even have a voice?”

For years, I used teaching tools and frameworks that other people created. I thought my only value was being a facilitator, and my validity came from those frameworks instead of my abilities.

If you doubt whether you have a voice, you do. I challenge you to operate with the hypothesis that you do. If you operate with that hypothesis, one way to cultivate the awareness of your voice is to ask, “What do I think?”

As you sit in a meeting or listen to a podcast, listen to your thoughts about what’s being said. What about it resonates or doesn’t resonate with you?

As you ask those questions, it reminds you that you have autonomous thoughts and reactions, which is your voice. It’s the insights that only you can develop because of your experience, wiring, unique identities, and attributes. Once you are aware of your thoughts and feelings, you can decide whether you want to share them with someone else.

What does this mean for introverts?

Talking isn’t synonymous with having a voice. Introverts can still communicate effectively through other channels. The advocacy here isn’t being noisy or louder.

Voice isn’t just the words you use, but how you move through the world. Your voice is your influence. This could be in conversation, written communication, and the action you take in meetings, in your neighborhood, or with your team. The question isn’t how you can become an extrovert.

Instead, ask yourself, “What’s the best way to communicate my thoughts, feelings, and influence?” In corporate spaces, we prioritize communication that looks like succinct bullet points with no “ums” and shows the right amount of emotion so that you don’t lose credibility, particularly if you’re a woman.

Voice isn’t just the words you use, but how you move through the world. Your voice is your influence.

If we continue to make that specific mode of communication a prerequisite, we’ll miss insights from people who are wired differently. For example, if a person is a postprocessor, they don’t think actively during a meeting; the best ideas come after. Then you can express yourself best by typing rather than talking, which is often viewed as weakness rather than wiring.

There’s an opportunity for each of us to design our communication flows to minimize barriers. Identify the best communication that works for your team so you can capture the best ideas—not just the loudest ones.

How does someone who’s done a lot of self-censoring begin to find their voice?

The first step in unlearning silence is awareness. It’s not that we have personal failings or need more courage, but it’s recognizing that each of us has learned silence.

Start by thinking about how you’ve learned to be silent and how it’s baked into your habits, patterns, and assumptions. You probably don’t even notice how you self-censor because you’re used to others censoring you; you edit yourself to stay at your job and keep your position.

I don’t advise you to go to your boss and tell them that you think they’re horrible and ineffective because that’s what you think. Instead, start with low-risk, time-bound experiments. In the book, I discuss how I did this: I was riding in a cab and wanted to ask the driver to open my window because I couldn’t.

I had a 20-minute debate with myself over whether I was going to ask that question. Was it worth it? In the end, I told myself, “I’m probably never going to see this driver again. We’re on a well-lit, well-trafficked path, so the likelihood of harm coming to me for asking to open the window is low.”

I finally asked, “Sir, can we open the window?” Then he pressed a button, and the window just opened. It was the best air I had ever breathed!

Start with low-risk environments with people you don’t have ongoing relationships with. Test what it looks like for you to express what you think and what you need. Practice with lower stakes so you can develop the data set that says, “I can speak up, and it might have an impact.” The good thing about these experiments is the knowledge you’ll gain for future situations.

Do you have to use your voice before you can find it?

Finding your voice without using it is nearly impossible, which is incredibly frustrating and feels like a catch-22. The standard of perfection means many of us want to be sure of what our voice is before we begin to use it.

The process of using your voice gives you the feedback to decipher your intentions and how you wish to show up. Again, starting in low-risk environments with low-risk experiments gives you the data to figure out your voice.

Two mental hacks around those experiments can lower the risks. The first is to hold on to your mindset when operating on your hypothesis—for instance, this is what you currently believe, and this is what you think you’ll do. My hypothesis doesn’t have to be the end-all truth, and by testing it, I can learn without committing myself to holding on to a position forever.

The second hack is the idea that we, as individuals, will evolve. Leaders don’t want the perception of flip-flopping or inconsistency. As we get different data, our context and factors change. Evolution must be inevitable.

You must pivot as your voice, choices, and stances evolve. The challenge is controlling the narrative of why you’re changing so you’re not viewed as flaky. I suggest you say, “Here’s what I’ve learned and the change I’m making. This is why.”

Will people react negatively when I start using my voice?

Unlearning silence is a dynamic process; how we show up will impact others. Often, people expect us to show up a certain way. They’ll expect you to be quiet, an easy follower, and not a stakeholder they’ll need to be mindful of.

The more you figure out how to find and use your voice, the more transparent you can be about the experiment you’re using to do so. Then you’ll get valuable data and increase the ability to manage people’s reactions.

It sounds like, “What I’m working on today is ensuring that we’re examining the issue from every angle.” Then you can invite and offer varying perspectives to achieve that aim together.

Conversations about your leadership edge, your leadership experiments, and transparency not only help people understand your behavior better but open up dialogue around it. It signals to people that you’re a continuous learner and you continue to develop.

What surprised you most while writing this book?

What surprised me most was that I actually had a voice. I always vowed that I wouldn’t write a book unless I had something to add to the conversation. I watched others in the negotiation field write books that were a regurgitated version of Getting to Yes [by Roger Fisher and William Ury].

If I ever wrote, I thought my ideas must be new, additive, and move the conversation forward. When I landed on the idea of silence, I noticed that there wasn’t a commercial book on the topic.

I started this journey wondering if my idea was a real thing. I began writing, testing my ideas with clients, and witnessing their resonance. I had aha moments where I would say, “Wow, I always thought I was the problem.”

It was the power of having language to say, “It’s not you. It’s not because you’re personally flawed. It’s not because you’re a bad leader.” It’s this thing called silence; we’ve all learned it, often been rewarded for it, and fundamentally impacted by it.

That acknowledgment and management of silence’s role on our team allows us to translate our good intentions into a better impact. I’m surprised, as maybe anyone is, that I have a voice, and I can’t wait for you to discover and use your own voice, too.

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