Why it’s So Hard to Speak Up at Work

Why it’s So Hard to Speak Up at Work

Ryan Smerek MSLOC Associate Professor Ryan Smerek has written a new book called Speaking up at Work.The treasurer of a large company is asked to illegally transfer a large sum of money to an offshore account. After storming into the CEO’s office and angrily confronting her boss, she loses her job, receives death threats, moves to another country, and painstakingly rebuilds her life.

Then there’s the change leader –– someone who guides and encourages others to adapt to new ideas or situations –– who repeatedly suggests a more deliberate process for how digital products are rolled out within the company. She’s initially ignored, but over time, executives realize they’re rolling out things no one is using. After adopting her suggestions, her supervisor sends her a note praising the value of change management.

Both real-life scenarios underscore a main theme in a new book by Northwestern University’s Ryan Smerek called Speaking Up at Work: Leading Change as an Independent Thinker. Whether you’re taking a stance against a bad idea or suggesting a new, innovative one, it can be scary and risky to advocate for workplace changes contrary to the conventional wisdom, Smerek says. But if done right, there are significant rewards.

Smerek, associate professor in the Masters’ of Science in Learning and Organizational Change (MSLOC) program in the School of Education and Social Policy, interviewed more than 50 people for the book, which tells the personal stories of people who lead change and synthesizes decades of research in psychology and management.

“Going against the herd is very challenging,” Smerek says. “There’s a real kind of pain being a lone voice, or being ostracized, or potentially losing your job.”

Then there’s “the vulnerability of looking stupid. You can be spoken down to: ‘You don’t understand,’ or, ‘That’s what everybody does,’” Smerek says. “But it’s very context dependent and obviously, if you speak up about some important issue and are able to lead change in a positive way that has good results, it’s great for everyone.” 

Smerek’s book underscores best practices for achieving those wins—and, ideally, to avoid getting demoted or fired. High on that list is emotional regulation—which the angry former treasurer told Smerek she wishes she had practiced.

“It is important that when you’re sharing your thoughts, you don’t move over into what’s called ‘deviant anger,’ where you lose your composure, and you become the focus—rather than your message,” he says.

Other tips include:

  • Ask questions in a non-threatening way. Something like, “I wonder if we could try this?”
  • Point out inconsistencies between stated organizational values and how it’s actually behaving: “We say we want X, but we’re doing Y,” he says.
  • Strategically build your reputation over time to be more credible when you do speak up.

Smerek, who teaches classes on individual learning and development, organizational learning, design thinking, cognitive design, and people analytics for the MSLOC program, hopes the book helps workers find more courage to speak up about issues they find meaningful and important.

“It’s equally important to help team leaders see the value in having an open culture in which employees are not afraid to speak their mind,” he says.



By Ed Finkel
Last Modified: 8/24/23