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The good things that happen when you speak up

A common explanation cited for women failing to advance to senior leadership positions is that they are less likely to speak up in meetings or make bold demands in negotiations. I certainly fall into the category of those who prefer to speak only when they are 100% sure they know what they are talking about. We are raised to care about what others might think of us, especially to avoid appearing too pushy or opinionated. It has taken me many years to shed those worries and start speaking up with more confidence.

I want to share a story with you of happened at business school when I was tempted to be silent but decided to voice my opinion, and what happened next. I was taking the Corporate Ethics class together with 80 other students from my stream in our first year of the MBA.  We discussed the case of GlaxoSmithKline’s AIDS drugs and if they should be given away for free to poor countries, despite the worry that they might then be reimported and sold cheaply in richer countries. I am strong supporter of philanthropy, but was uncomfortable with the way our professor handled the discussion. He implied basically that GSK should be forced to give away free AIDS drugs in Africa and that that was the only ethical thing to do for any company. It made me uncomfortable for two reasons: the class was supposed to serve as a balanced discussion to weigh moral dilemmas, not for the professor to tell us what was right. I was also worried that forcing a private company to give away its products for free amounted to expropriation and that it was an odd path for a business school professor to advocate. It made me think of Harvard University and its multibillion dollar endowment, and that forcing GSK to give away drugs for free would be like saying the government should confiscate Harvard’s endowment and use it to build schools in poor countries. It sounds like a charitable thing to do, but does not respect private property and might also destroy one of the world’s greatest universities.

As all these things were going through my head, I noticed that no-one contradicted the professor, in fact the only people who spoke up supported his views. I was really torn if I should share my thoughts and use the Harvard endowment analogy. There were three Africans in our class, one of which I knew to be strongly involved in charity programs in South Africa. Saying the respect for private property was more important to me than giving dying people in need free drugs was certainly going to make me sound like a horrible person, no matter what arguments I had. But I was a strong believer in having a deep discussion of the real trade-offs and implications involved in making ethical decisions, rather than saying “this is right and we’re the good guys”, and I somehow decided to raise my hand. I argued that the respect for GSK’s intellectual property was the foundation of our economic system and once it was disregarded, where would it end? I threw in the Harvard endownment analogy. I said while I certainly would encourage companies to do the right thing, I found the idea that the state should force companies to give drugs away for free a horrendous mistake that could have unforeseen consequences for investment in pharmaceutical research. The professor looked rather surprised and the whole class was silent. I regretted having opened my mouth then and there.

As it happened, it was just time for the break, and the professor asked us to relax for ten minutes. I went to the restroom alone, trying not to look anyone in the eye. There was a queue in the restroom (isn’t there always in women’s restrooms?) and many of the girls from my class happened to be there. Suddenly, one girl turned around and congratulated me: “you really nailed it! it was so courageous of you to stand up to this guy” (meaning the righteous professor). Another girl immediately joined in “yes, well done, I was thinking exactly the same but couldn’t get myself to tell him”. In fact, the same day four more people came up to me after class, in the hall, during lunch, and told me how great they thought it was that I had spoken up and that they had been so annoyed by the discussion but had just waited for someone to end it.

How do you think I now felt about speaking up? I couldn’t believe that while I thought everyone would think I am a horrible person if they heard what I thought, they actually agreed with me. Chances are, when you hesitate to speak up and think everyone will laugh at you, they might actually like to hear what you think. Even if not – so what? If you say what you think, at least people know who you are and what you stand for. They may not like you, but if you don’t share what you think, they won’t even know you.

I’m still not immune to the temptation of hiding my face. Until a few days ago, I didn’t even put my name on the about page of this blog. I explained my husband that I didn’t want to be in the public eye, because with my last blog which was quite popular, I kept bumping into young colleagues at work who immediately realised who I was and would blurt out “you are the blogger angie, right?” in front of everybody, and I was very uncomfortable that anybody present could just check out my blog and see what I wrote there. My husband couldn’t understand it at all: “why would you be embarassed by that? you had this very popular blog, you should be proud, if I was somebody present and heard about it, I would find you more interesting for it!”. He was so right, and he reminded me that I had again made the mistake of trying to hide my thoughts. After this conversation, I switched on my laptop and completely updated the ABOUT ME page on this blog, so now you can all know who I am and where I come from.

I encourage you all to do the same. Don’t hide your thoughts, be proud of who you are and what you do and let others know. Next time you are tempted to hide, just speak up and observe all the good things that can happen.

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