One woman’s experience with the power and backlash of speaking up.
I achieved rock bottom in confidence in the middle of a Facebook usability study.
Things had been rough at work for a while.
I kept clashing with a couple colleagues — it felt like when I tried to speak up about the things I felt were important, it was taken as a challenge of their authority.
I tried getting smaller and quieter for a couple months to temper their response. Instead of making things easier, I felt like the negative intensity of those relationships increased. My productivity dropped. I felt less confident in not just speaking out for the user, but also less confident in my work in general.
When body starts to hunch, the head pulls your neck and spine down an additional 10 lbs for every extra inch you bow it. That tension tightens up your back, locking down your muscles, curling your shoulders further forward. The movements are all protective, the instinct is understandable. But pretty soon you aren’t able to straighten up fully anymore.
When I collided with rock bottom, I had just finished day one of a two-day usability study in Facebook’s Menlo Park offices.
I was the moderator, sitting with the participants, facing 5 cameras, a panel of one-way glass, and my colleagues on the other side in an observation room.
I was sweating in front of the glass, uncomfortably on guard and fumbling through each interview. After each session I headed into the observation room and had a terrible conversation with the colleagues I was having issues with.
At some point I stopped talking. I just finished the day.
I went home and a couple beers.
I put on Enya. Lord knows why.
And then I gave myself the worst haircut in the whole fucking world.
We’re talking a “bathroom sink,” “no compliments, just apologetic glances,” “high fives from the punk teen on Caltrain” kinda haircut.
It was terrible.
We’re talking the kind of terrible where “design peers inquire quietly, just in case it was a hot mullet trend from the Netherlands they should already know”.
I woke up, pulled on a t-shirt, and I marched that haircut right back into the usability lab with its fluorescent lights and one-way-glass.
All I remember thinking was — this is it. There is no hair to hide behind anymore.
Boom motherfuckers. Now you will see the real thing.
The Infallible Logic of Terrible Hair
That auto-haircut was the best thing that could have happened to me.
Terrible hair means you’re already feeling exposed. People are already looking at you like you’re an alien interloper.
You stop flinching when someone raises an eyebrow.
I found my confidence returned immediately. If I had relevant data or an opinion to add, I spoke up about it. Big meeting, small meeting, it didn’t matter. If half the room was already looking at the hair, why not add some data?
Even better, the bad-hair made me impervious to anything but logic.
Of course the team shouldn’t trust my suggestions or opinions without testing them — just look at this hair. But I felt confident surfacing my research, questions and concerns because those are things we should be working on together.
Speaking up for data, for the user, for the team — a healthy workplace empowers people to speak up for things they think are important or beneficial for the company.
You don’t need to give yourself the world’s worst haircut to gain confidence speaking up at work. You just have to believe in the quality of your work, and your responsibility to your user and your team to do the right thing.
What’s Worth Speaking Up For?
Companies aren’t people. Teams don’t think empathetically like humans. Organizations aren’t necessarily looking for compounding issues like concept or usability problems. Sometimes things look fine in the numbers, but something is deeply wrong with the experience.
Your value at a company is your mind — as well as your work. Adding your voice where it matters is part of your responsibility.
Of course, if you’re always on a soapbox shouting about something, your voice will lose its urgency and weight. It is helpful to have an internal read on things that are important enough to invest your social capitol in.
Here are a few things that I generally find important enough to speak up for:
- User needs — I view my job on the team as an advocate for the user — advising the design, checking impact with data, and helping the user achieve their goals.
- Project Prioritization — sometimes engineering goals conflict with improvements to user experience or usability. I make sure to share information about the impact of these issues and relative benefit of addressing.
- Credit and excellence among colleagues — I spend time identifying and calling out good work and rigorous decision making among colleagues. I try to reference people’s ideas, research, designs or data, and assign credit where I can. Especially for women, this is an important part of career advancement, and one that you can help with easily if you already feel confident speaking up.
Invite People In, Don’t Just Shop Theories
When you speak up in a meeting, your goal should be to voice concern or opinion, present data, and encourage action.
Too often work conversations can devolve into people presenting their ‘side’, and then others on the team treating it as an argument instead of an exploration.
“Voice concern. Present data. Encourage action.”
Seek to invite people into your process of figuring things out. It is much easier to approach a skeptic with data and a question than a opinion and a request.
- Invite people into the process — It is much easier to approach a skeptic with data and a question than a opinion and a request. Your solution will likely be more swift and elegant with more minds onboard.
- Treat issues like campaigns — instead of jumping for immediate action (ex. a vote, a spot in a sprint), do your groundwork first. Float the issue, build understanding, collect support from interested stakeholders, and then call for action.
- Agree before the decision is made — by the time your team is sitting down with decision makers to figure out what launches, everyone should be on the same page. Information should have been shared, coffee drunk, and trip-up questions asked before decision-making meetings. Otherwise you run the risk of incompletely informed decisions and ruffled feathers among teammates.
Don’t Take it Personally
A loudly voiced opinion is like a dog whistle for some types of people. Even on great teams, there will occasionally be people who react to your personality and style rather than the substance of your point.
Especially among women, being outspoken or forward with your opinion can be read as “aggressive” or “combative”. That kind of feedback is stupid, and it hurts, but it shouldn’t stop you from speaking up.
Here’s a pretty spicy Facebook performance review from a colleague who couldn’t separate my style from my results.
I’m guessing from the subjective nature of this feedback, guy might not have liked me personally. But this kind of feedback doesn’t stop products from shipping — after this performance review, I was given a promotion, a raise, more stock, and a transfer to a different team.
I share this to show you that even negative feedback won’t sink your ship as long as you’re speaking up from a place of respect, data, and concern for the user and company.
Here are a few ways to temper subjective, negative reactions you might encounter.
- Invest in personal relationships — Meet people on your team and invest in getting to know them a bit personally. If people know where you’re coming from and trust your intentions, they’re less likely to react negatively. A large, group meeting is not the place to both introduce yourself and your controversial opinions on the product.
- Speak up for yourself — If someone shuts you down when you voice your a concern or opinion, make damn sure they used logic and data to cancel out your point. Otherwise, speak up again to say your point still holds water.
- Don’t just lob bombs, help catch them — If you’re pointing out a big flaw or concern, helps to jump into the emergency response. As a researcher I try to collect a list of supporting information that can help the team start to figure out first steps, and coordinate follow-up research to gauge the size/cause of the problem.
What are your tips for advocating on a team, and diffusing tense situations? Please add your wisdom to the comments!