5.15.19 Finding Your Voice

It’s a scenario many minorities in tech know too well.

You sit in a crowded meeting room, the team debating some new challenge, when a thought pops into your head.

Maybe it’s a solution no one has thought of yet, or an idea that hasn’t been proposed. You muster the confidence to share your thoughts and are cutoff midway through your sentence, immediately dismissed by a senior team member with a wave of the hand and a “Well, that doesn’t really apply here”. It stings the first time, but you run through a series of mental gymnastics to excuse the reception at your attempt to contribute.

Then it happens again.

And again.

Before you know it, you’ve lost the will, and perhaps even the confidence, to share your thoughts at all. You have lost your voice.

Many who have experienced dismissive leadership stop speaking up entirely, they grow inward and blame themselves. Others grow loud and frustrated as the dismissiveness turns to tone policing (“Maybe they’d listen if you just sounded a little nicer”). I’ve been both of these and I’ve seen more than one talented teammate grow jaded or depressed and give up entirely.

Repeated lack of engagement from leadership when sharing your unique perspective is demoralizing. While, admittedly, not all of your ideas will always be worth pursuing, dismissive responses not only make you feel inferior and further isolated, but also demonstrates a failure to properly take opportunities for knowledge sharing. Why was the idea not a good fit? Was there a part of the thought or suggestion that could be useful? Engaging with an idea and having a conversation about it helps grow the knowledge of the team and provides an opportunity to strengthen the trust between leadership and the team at large.

So, what can you do to reclaim your voice, to make yourself heard and to encourage meaningful conversations?

The best place to start, and often the most difficult, is having an open conversation with leadership. Healthy relationships between employees and management begin and end with a good feedback loop. While our leaders and managers are presumably in their positions due to experience and skill, it doesn’t mean they are infallible. Everyone has growing to do, and the best way to do it is with thoughtful feedback. This excellent article from Forbes offers 4 simple steps to giving your manager feedback. In particular, using ‘I’ statements in your conversation, that is to say reframing the feedback as a request for them to help you grow, rather than accusatory ‘You’ statements, can aid in keeping the conversation civil and productive.

When feedback doesn’t work, it often is a good indicator that you have found yourself in a toxic work culture. Escaping that culture and finding something else can be draining and scary. I talked myself out of leaving a toxic culture basically once a week for 2 years, for two separate jobs. Once you find yourself somewhere new, overcoming the fear of dismissive leadership and finding your voice again can take time. There’s a level of trust and vulnerability you have to get reacquainted with before you might feel safe trying to speak up in meetings, and that’s ok, because once you find it and you are heard, it’s worth the wait.