Imagine you’re sitting in a strategy meeting. Your boss has shared some of the challenges that need to be addressed, and now she’s asking the team to come up with suggestions. You’ve got an idea, but you’re worried that others will think it’s no good. So, rather than risk it, you keep your thoughts to yourself.
Whether it happens in a meeting, a classroom, or even around a dinner table, most of us have experience of having something to say but holding back in case it made other people think less of us. We learn to do this early; as children, we start caring what our peers think and avoid saying or doing anything that could make us look silly, weak, or not as cool as everyone else.
By the time we’re adults, the habit of silencing and restricting ourselves is almost unconscious, and it prevents us from speaking up when we have ideas, questions, or concerns at work.
In a 2003 study into people speaking up in the workplace, academics Frances J. Milliken, Elizabeth W. Morrison, and Patricia F. Hewlin found that 85 percent of study participants felt unable to approach their bosses with concerns about work. The most common reason for this? The participants didn’t want their bosses to see them in a negative light.
Even seemingly confident people experience this. Take business innovator Nilofer Merchant; she was labeled a visionary by CNBC, and in 2013, she was awarded the Future Thinker Award by Thinkers50. But in a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, Nilofer shared that while working at Apple, she would keep quiet about problems she noticed because she didn’t want to be wrong. She’s quoted as saying, “I would rather keep my job by staying within the lines than say something and risk looking stupid.”
When fear gets in the way of people speaking up at work, it’s not only the individuals keeping silent who miss out. Companies also lose opportunities to generate new ideas, and this is especially dangerous in a world where businesses need to innovate if they want to succeed.