(This post is dedicated to my sister, who like me, is learning to amplify her voice in the corporate arena).
We all have an intrinsic need to be heard. We want to know that our opinion matters. In the corporate space, we want our voices to be heard, we want to know that our work matters. In order for business to be increasingly globally competitive, harnessing the collective diversity of their human capital is vital to progress.
In countries like South Africa, where our rich diversity is undercut by a traumatic past, it’s no wonder that the children of the “previously oppressed” find it difficult to use their voices in the places and spaces that was previously restricted.
A consequence of first generation students accessing higher education is emerging pools of first generation professionals who need to learn to find their voices. Their parents are largely blue collar workers and although proud of the opportunities available to their offspring that was denied to them, they remain unable to provide a framework of support to help first generation professionals navigate the strange new white collar environments.
There is a multiple muting of potentially powerful voices that are harbouring solutions, creativity and new direction. Much of this internal barbed wire has been strung together through years of cultural norming where children were not allowed to express their voices in healthy ways.
Women in societies based in patriarchy were told in various covert and overt messages that they were not valuable in the workplace, let alone as leaders in the corporate world. Many young people that travel into cities and towns in the hubs of commerce have faced starkly different realities growing up and feel like pariahs in their own worlds.
Depending on your life experiences, there will be multiple aspects of finding and expressing your voice in the workplace.
- Find your voice: The first step to finding your voice is learning to determine what you like and don’t like in your own life. You may have become so accustomed to succumbing to the status quo that you have not given yourself permission to formulate your own opinions.
Growing up, there were many things about my Indian culture that I didn’t like. I didn’t listen to Bollywood music. I read lots of books while others we playing card games. I didn’t enjoy the petty gossip and comparisons that I was exposed to. People teased me for using too many ‘big words’.
I tried to fit in for a long time but after my peer groups kept dismissing me as a “coconut”, I realised that it was pointless trying to fit in. It still took me a long time to own my voice but the first step was giving myself permission to be different from the people around me.
2. Own your voice: This is not an easy step. The process to owning your voice will not be linear. The way to own your voice will be to find out what the greatest impediments are to your ability to speak up.
Biological: Did you grow up in a home where you were the youngest (or middle child) and you felt like no one paid attention when you tried to share your opinion? Feeling like your voice doesn’t count can become so frustrating that you eventually give up on trying to be heard.
Cultural: Is your family culture rooted in beliefs that certain members of the group held all the power – and you fell into the “naturally voiceless” segment? When you’re part of an active workplace, you will be expected to bring all your personal power to bear within your role – but if you’ve learned how to remain silent (even though you have something valuable to say), you will need to learn how to speak up.
Psychological/Emotional: My attempts to speak up in the home was met with violent consequences and so I learnt that speaking up gets me (and the people I care about) in trouble. That led to deep seated emotional and psychological rifts in my inner belief and caused me to doubt my voice in every area of my life.
I let other people decide what was best for my life – because I lacked the confidence and the courage to say No.
Gender/Race: Men still generally find it easier to own their voice and speak up with confidence due to the global gender bias that is unfortunately a reality in most workplaces (Five Common Signs of Gender Bias in the Workplace: http://bit.ly/2srCZw7)
Political instability only serves to heighten tension in terms of race relations and often the workplace is where people have to confront their subconscious frustrations and find easy scapegoats.
So yes, speaking up is not going to be easy – given that you have to address your personal muzzle configuration, as well as the invisible gags within your specific work context. But it is not impossible and if you are part of a workforce, your voice matters.
3. Practice using your voice in various contexts: If it feels impossible to amplify your voice on the job, start by speaking up in other areas that are just as important. Is there a difficult friendship where you need to establish some healthy boundaries but you’ve been putting it off for too long? Do you always turn a blind eye at a restaurant when the waiter doesn’t bring what you asked for?
Speaking up in one area successfully builds the confidence you need to speak up in other areas of your life.
4. Be open to constructive criticism: Learning how to speak up will necessitate learning how to deal with constructive criticism. Not all the ideas that you develop will be a right fit, so be prepared to learn how to integrate your suggestions into what is needed for the current work context. (Here’s a good guideline for making your voice heard in meetings: http://bit.ly/2r7SXI0)
5. Keep reflecting and growing in this area: Start keeping a journal of the things that make you feel “I wish I’d said that” or “If only they would do it this way”. Then start writing down the ways that you will speak up the next time the opportunity arises.
Ask someone you trust for help in learning how to own your voice. Reflect with them and allow them to serve as a sounding board. Give yourself time. A year from now, you will look back and find the things you are struggling with today will have become easier because you rose to the challenge.
6. Listen to others and encourage them to share their voices: When you start valuing your own voice and your right to be heard, you will begin to appreciate how difficult it might be for others to express their voices too. You will find yourself becoming a better listener and being more proactive in how you process information.
You can become one of those people who actively own their voice and use their words to shape the worlds around them.