The Voice of the "Underheard"
Updated: Jun 12, 2020
In August 2019, I left my job at a company where I had worked for the last 20 years. At my farewell party, one of my staff members, Danny Ryan, presented me with an award on behalf of my staff and colleagues. The award had an image of a megaphone and was inscribed with these words: “Voice of the Underheard.” Danny explained that they had come up with this award for me because I had always been someone who spoke up for people who didn’t have a voice or who were afraid to speak up.
Now that I’ve had a break from the corporate world for several months, I feel a new clarity around the importance of being that voice. It is incumbent upon anyone in a leadership position to seek out and pay attention to those who aren’t speaking up. These are often people who feel that they’re not part of the in-crowd or who are from underrepresented populations. These are the people who do not believe they have the freedom to voice their opinions and who are hesitant to challenge the status quo.
I remembered a conversation several years ago at a staff meeting I was part of. The head of the group asked the question “why are people so scared to speak up? They’re not going to lose their jobs.” A lively discussion ensued, but we quickly converged on the same idea: people aren’t as afraid of losing their jobs as they are afraid of being branded as “difficult” or “challenging.” The consequence of those labels may not be the loss of a job but is more likely the loss of reputation, standing, or future opportunity.
Over the many years of managing and mentoring people, I always encouraged people to speak up, but I came to realize that I was naïve in thinking it was so simple. Often people don’t want to single themselves out as the person who disagrees with the majority or with the authority figure, so they choose to say nothing. They’d rather be an insider than an outsider. Several people I know have chosen not to speak up about serious issues of harassment and discrimination. Their reasons for not speaking up are most commonly based on fear of retaliation, which can take many subtle forms. One person I met was afraid of not having her work visa renewed if she was seen as a trouble-maker. Another was afraid of not being believed and of victim blaming. Another was afraid he wouldn’t get a promotion. These are not baseless fears—everyone knows that reporting issues can have ramifications.
People who spoke to me about their fears did so in confidence. In some cases, I could help the person with their situation. Often, however, I could only listen and advise. In some cases, the person who came to me felt emboldened to speak up; in other cases, they decided they weren't ready to, but they felt better for having been heard.
My hope is that leaders at all levels in all organizations will spend less time paying attention to the loud voices and to the people who agree with them and will listen with an open mind and open heart to those who have a different perspective. People who feel marginalized will not speak up unless they feel that it is safe to do so, and leaders are responsible for creating that safe environment. I have been inspired by the research and writing on psychological safety by Amy Edmondson. Every leader needs to understand how to bring out the under-heard voices, to listen without shutting someone down, and to be open to having their own beliefs challenged.