To really change the status quo, women need to make their voices heard. Across the country, women are tackling that goal on a large scale (say by running for office), or by voicing their opinions in the workplace and in community organizations. Whatever the venue, speaking out is key, especially if you want to advance. Interestingly, a new study has found it isn’t just what you say that helps you get ahead, but how you say it.
Research has found that speaking up with information intended to help your group has a ton of benefits. It can improve performance, help come up with creative solutions, and address (and even avoid) issues that might hold your group back. And by speaking up, research suggests that not only will you help your group get ahead, it can help you emerge as a leader.
In efforts to better understand the power of using your voice, researchers Elizabeth McClean, Kyle Emich, Sean R. Martin, and Todd Woodruff found themselves wondering which matters more: who speaks up, or how they do it? In a search for those answers, the group recently undertook two separate studies, and their results were eye-opening.
Sean R. Martin writes in Harvard Business Review that they found those who speak up can gain the respect and esteem of their peers, and this increase in status made people more likely to emerge as leaders of their groups. However, these effects happened only for some people and only when they spoke up in certain ways.
“Specifically, speaking up with promotive voice (providing ideas for improving the group) was significantly related to gaining status among one’s peers and emerging as a leader. However, speaking up with prohibitive voice (pointing out problems or issues that may be harming the team and should be stopped) was not,” Martin writes. “We further found that the gender of the person speaking up was an important consideration: The status bump and leader emergence that resulted from speaking up with ideas only happened for men, not for women.”
Their findings echo research that shows that people respond differently when men and women engage in similar behaviors, which suggests that women who speak up and share ideas may not see the same benefits as men. Proving yet again that there is a definite strategy behind effectively making your voice heard.
“This research is not intended to suggest that people — men or women — should speak up only with [promotive] ideas and avoid bringing up problems,” Martin writes. “After all, for teams to function, innovate, and learn, it is critically important to … to spot the things that be might holding a team back from even better outcomes.”
This research highlights the need for us to understand the different ways men and women speak. Men are very direct, use and expect one-word responses, women want the story behind the answer. Relationship building and collaboration lie behind women’s communication, while men communicate to get the job done.
My Leading Women co-author Gloria Feldt cites the work of Simon Sinek, who points out the benefit of explaining why before making a suggestion. For example, by first stating, “I have an idea for improving our overall productivity as a group,” before making their proposal, both women and men found their audiences responded better to their ideas.
My co-author Claire Damken Brown, Ph.D. is a gender communication expert and urges women to make their voices heard to build their credibility as leaders. If they do it correctly, the results can be beneficial, but it can be difficult to the get credit. Our ideas are our intellectual capital, and in Leading Women, she relates how she felt when someone “stole” her idea in a meeting. She actually thought this just happened in textbooks, so she was stunned when it happened to her. To address the issue, she recommends that you:
- Bring attention back to yourself
- Buddy up with someone in advance and have them bring the attention back to you
- Seek help from the meeting facilitator.
Whether in the workplace or in the community, it’s up to all of us to recognize what makes us effective communicators, learn from our differences, and create a supportive, collaborative environment where women and men have equal floor time. As women, we can’t unlock our full potential in the workplace, in the community, or in our homes until we gain recognition for our ideas and build a world where equality isn’t the exception, but the rule.