“Horrible-izing”. The Fear of Speaking Up At Work

Why are people afraid to speak up at work about things that aren’t working for them – or about things they don’t agree with?

Especially when managers say that they want to hear from their staff and that they are looking for honest feedback about what might be stopping their people from reaching their full potential at work?

The disconnect is huge.

It can start when someone “horrible-izes”.

This means they think about all the bad things that might happen to them if they speak up.

The conversation with themselves (self-talk) sounds like this – “If I speak up, I’ll lose my job”.  “I’ll lose my house and then I’ll lose my family and end up on the street living in a cardboard box without food or money”.

That is “horrible-izing”.

The less “horrible” self-talk sounds like this, “I won’t get my bonus”, “I won’t be promoted”, “I won’t be considered for important projects”, “I won’t be respected”, “My boss won’t approve of me”, “I’ll lose power and control, “I won’t be recognized”, “I won’t be taken seriously”, “I’ll be fractionalized”, and “It’s better that I say nothing”.

As ridiculous as any of these fears might sound, this conversation can happen incredibly quickly in our heads, triggering a wave of anxiety that washes over us and stops us in our tracks. Which usually stops us from saying anything.

The cause of “horrible-izing” may, in some cases, be based on personal experience which has been magnified in our heads, even though, when tested, the experience is seldom as extreme or severe as we remember it.

However, the real cause of “horrible-izing” is that we are unconsciously judging ourselves and the situation rather than stepping back far enough to observe ourselves IN the situation.

Here’s why this matters.

If you don’t move away from judgement to observation, it’s very easy to become a victim of your subjective view of the situation – which narrows your view, limits your options and might make you feel trapped or victimized.

The challenge for all of us is to move from judgement to observation, which allows us to see more clearly that “I do have a voice, my opinion is valid, and my manager is concerned about whether or not the environment is supporting me to reach my full potential”.

This clarity about the value of your opinion as well as your manager’s concern might motivate you to speak up.

However, even with this clarity, it’s not easy to do this.

One of the main reasons it’s not easy is that most people are uncomfortable speaking up because they don’t like to “disagree” and, as a result of the fact that they don’t like to disagree, they interpret disagreement as conflict.

And, they don’t want to have conflict with their boss. So, they don’t speak up.

To rectify this, we have to accept that we may be uncomfortable speaking up while simultaneously trusting that this honesty will not be negatively interpreted – and then speak up anyway.

To increase the chance of being heard, it’s important to speak up from a place of observation and not judgement.

For example, instead of saying “I don’t agree with that, it won’t work”, say, “In trying to understand your suggestion objectively, I’m a little confused about how it will address …”

Because, even though it’s fun to laugh at Dilbert cartoons that paint a bleak picture of workplace communication, most managers really want to hear about what is working and what is not working in their ongoing support of their staff.