Back in the day when Oracle was a tiny 20,000 person company, I remember attending quarterly all-hands meetings held by our EVP, Randy Baker. Our President, Ray Lane, would attend as a guest speaker at least once a year. These meetings were held at Hotel Sofitel so we could cram 600+ people into the Grand Ballroom and would typically last anywhere from 90-120 minutes. I’d spend the whole time listening intently, thinking to myself “What insightful question could I ask when the Q&A starts?” and “How can I connect what I’m doing to Randy or Ray’s strategic direction?”
After one of these meetings when we got back to our offices at 300 Oracle, a senior manager (we’ll call her Laura) came up to me and said “You always ask questions that I’m thinking about but am afraid to ask.” At the time, I just thanked Laura for the compliment and felt good that I didn’t embarrass myself since at least one other person in the room found my questions to be relevant. But reflecting upon that now, it’s evident to me that Laura missed her opportunity to “show up” i.e. demonstrating to the most senior leadership at Oracle, her peers and her directs that she was a leader with good ideas.
Why Silence is NOT Golden
While we can all agree that keeping your mouth shut at movie theaters is proper and courteous behavior, it’s not appropriate in Silicon Valley companies where ideas need to be surfaced, shared, debated and validated. Logical, right? As a manager, I’m continuously evaluating my team not solely on what they deliver (sure that’s important), but how they complement me. For example, are they just following my directions or are they thinking about things that I may not have considered (I lost that part of my ego where I had to always be right or I had all the right answers a very long time ago). So who’s bringing new ideas to the table? Who’s challenging the status quo? Who’s willing to take a stand for what they truly believe in? If you don’t speak up in meetings, large or small, you will not elevate yourself in the eyes of management. And this will certainly have a direct effect on your promotion path and career advancement.
Finding Your Voice
Going to Toastmasters to get comfortable speaking in public may be helpful, but is not the solution. Let’s look beyond the obvious “introversion vs. extroversion” discussion since there’s plenty of great research on that.
The key is first to understand why you don’t do what you know you should. For example, technical professionals (e.g. engineers, finance, IT workers) have one major handicap—their intellect. They excel in their roles because they can analyze and compute amongst the best. However, in meetings there isn’t time to “do more homework” in order to get to the precise “right” answers. Many technical people aren’t comfortable sticking their necks out when they aren’t 100% sure that they can back it up with details. You’ve got to get comfortable operating in the gray-zone i.e. when you only have 80% confidence and rely on your judgment or instincts to fill the rest of the 20% gap. This is particularly important in the technology industry. If you wait to be absolutely sure, another more agile competitor will beat you to market every time.
Another root cause for Silicon Valley career-limiting silence is culture. There are many cultures (e.g. Asian) that teach “deference to authority,” for example “respect your elders” or “children should not speak unless spoken to.” These values are responsible for deeply ingrained behaviors that affect how we interact in our Silicon Valley jobs. There is excellent research in this area originated by Geert Hofstede in his book “Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind” and further substantiated by The World Values Survey. For example, Power Distance Index (PDI) is one of six measurement dimensions that enables us to quantitatively compare cultural differences. PDI measures the amount of inequality in society by which people prefer more hierarchy/ less hierarchy. More specifically, it can indicate that low ranking people in an organization (e.g. family, company) accept that there is unequal distribution of power.
Looking at over 30 years of data, the US registers 40 out of 104 points (ranking of 59th out of 76 countries) where China registers 80 and 12th respectively on PDI. Simply put, Americans are much more willing to speak up and raise questions (e.g. challenge decisions, debate with others, and advocate their own ideas) where Chinese are focused on obedience within the “chain of command” (e.g. letting their managers speak while they remain silent).
Launch Your “Analysis Paralysis” Counter-Attack
As highly academically accomplished graduates and technical experts, we love to learn by collecting and processing information. In this case, it’s dangerous to fall into a false sense of progress because you “understand” why you are the way you are. How many times have you set goals and fallen short? New Years resolutions are a perfect example. Here’s what you must do to make sure these concepts don’t get stuck as just an interesting concept in your head:
- Zero in on the top 1-2 reasons why you are not comfortable speaking up more. Is it your fear of taking risk? Or is it tied to your cultural upbringing or some other reason? Sorry, but it’s not possible to work on 3+ things at one time.
- Commit and motivate yourself to transform. Are you completely convinced that you cannot “think” yourself through behaving differently? It’s too easy to get stuck in intellectual entertainment.
- Work on the root causes to unlock your vocal chords. This is action and practice, not just thinking. Yes, taking a stand when you don’t have all the data is risky. Rewiring your cultural DNA is even more difficult. In fact, it’s been shown that changing deeply ingrained behaviors takes at least six months.
What have you done to improve your communication visibility? Please share your experience. If you found this interesting, please use the toolbar below to share it with your network.
We will be diving deeper into this topic at our next ExecCatalyst live event in Mountain View, CA on Thursday, October 29th from 6:30-9:30pm. Register here.