Speaking up at work: 4 tips to make your voice heard

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Do you feel like you’re a ghost at office meetings? Have there been times when you wanted to say something but stayed quiet because you were:

  1. intimidated?
  2. worried that you may not have the right idea? or
  3. not sure about your English?

Speaking up at work can be a challenge especially for newcomers. We are still learning the language and figuring out the norms in the workplace. Our fear of making a bad first impression or being seen as incompetent often outweighs our desire to contribute to the conversation. Most of us defer to others and wait to be asked what we think.

Why is speaking up so important?

Speaking up is part of establishing your credibility in the Canadian workplace. It is also a way to show leadership. While it is important to listen and observe while you’re new, being silent most of the time can work against you. This is because you are expected to provide ideas and suggestions especially if it is within your area of expertise. You may have tons of knowledge but your colleagues will not know this unless you speak up and participate. This is the best way to become visible and eventually start building a positive reputation in the workplace.

Here are ways to help you start speaking up at work:

  1. Do your homework

    Read the agenda carefully before attending a meeting. See if you can contribute to any item on the list. Don’t go to the meeting unprepared. As a newbie, you may not be able to have a complete grasp of everything yet, but that’s a great opportunity to ask relevant questions. Don’t think you’re too new to have a say in things. You were hired to the position for a reason.

  2. Create your opportunity

    Make opportunities to speak up. You can:

    • Ask a question – This is expected when you’re a new employee so don’t be hesitate to ask. Being inquisitive is also the mark of someone who wants to get the job done right the first time. But make sure that your questions are relevant and don’t waste your coworkers’ time by asking questions that can be answered by common sense. Another thing to remember is to note down important points. This will save you from the embarrassment of asking again.
    • Seek clarification – Ask or repeat some points to make sure that you got them correctly. Many newcomers don’t do this for fear of sounding incompetent. Seeking clarification is a great way to avoid misunderstandings and wasting precious time on mistakes. This is also helpful to your boss because you can see if both of you are on the same page. You can say: “Just to summarize (or to be clear), you want me to do ____ and _____” or “What I’m hearing is that you need _______, is this correct?”
    • Provide feedback – Let your manager know how things are working out. Give periodic reports about your progress and ask a few questions. Always be tactful when disagreeing or providing negative feedback when asked. Use the “feedback sandwich” technique when appropriate. This involves delivering constructive criticism wedged between two positive comments. For example: “I think the new process for project X is good. It’s easy and familiar. But maybe we can explore using X to make production simpler. It can complement your already efficient system.”
    • Make suggestions – Bring new ideas and solutions to the table. But take note of the following:
      • Having big, bold ideas is great. But consider test driving your big idea with your supervisor or co-workers first before sharing it with a larger audience.
      • Be tactful when suggesting new ways of doing things when you’re a new employee. You may sound like a know-it-all and some people might be offended (particularly those who instituted whatever you wish to change). Emphasize the benefits of adopting your suggestion instead of pointing out why the old way was not good or efficient.
      • Don’t feel bad when your suggestion is not implemented. Be open to objections and think of it as a learning experience. Just keep trying.
  3. Delivery matters

    Things to remember when:

    • You’re insecure about your English:
      Speak clearly and at the right pace. Don’t worry too much about your grammar or pronunciation. You’re the only one who probably notices these. If you have a thick accent, speak slowly so you’ll be understood. Be brief and concise when speaking. Go straight to the point.
    • You’re afraid you might say the wrong thing:
      Try anyway! The worst that can happen is that someone will correct you. In a healthy work environment, people will be diplomatic when pointing out your mistake to avoid embarrassing you. Either way, take corrections in stride and don’t get discouraged. It’s all part of integrating into the workplace.
    • You get anxious before speaking:
      Anxiety is normal. The best way to overcome this is to practice – a lot. Take a deep breath before speaking. You will get used to it in no time.

    Go straight to the point but remember to always be tactful. Respect others and put their feelings first. Most Canadians would ask a question instead of declaring that the other person is wrong (for example: “Sorry, but can you please tell me how you arrived at (this answer)?”). Always give your co-worker a chance to explain or gracefully accept if they are indeed wrong.

  4. Continue learning English

    Often times, newcomers stop learning English once they get a job. Many think that daily interactions would be enough to help increase their proficiency while others don’t have time to learn. The sad truth is that learning English on-the-job may not be enough. It is through consistent and conscious effort that we continuously improve. Ask your HR department if the organization offers in-house language training. There may be ways that your workplace can arrange this and allow you to allocate some time for it. In your spare time, consider these 10 easy ways to improve your English or maybe join free conversation circles once a week. The most important thing is to never stop learning.

Article updated October 4, 2021.
Sources: The 3-word strategy that’ll give you the confidence to speak up at work, Sara Mccord, The Muse; Working in the Canadian workplace – A Handbook for newcomers to Canada, Paul A. Holmes; and How to get over your fear of speaking up at work, Jon Simmons, Monster. Retrieved October 17, 2018.

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