speak-upPeople perceive someone who speaks up as a competent leader – regardless of whether they actually are competent. That’s the finding of a fascinating research study that has just been reported online at Time.

The research study

68 students were divided into teams of four. Each group was tasked with organizing an imaginary nonprofit environmental organization. The level of influence and competence of each group member was then rated by:

  1. the other members of their group
  2. independent observers who watched videotapes of the group sessions
  3. the researchers.

All three groups came to the same conclusion:

Consistently, the group members who spoke up the most were rated the highest for such qualities as “general intelligence” and “dependable and self-disciplined.” The ones who didn’t speak as much tended to score higher for less desirable traits, including “conventional and uncreative.”

The researchers then ran a similar experiment to test whether people who spoke up more, were in fact more competent. This time the subject was maths and the researchers knew the students’ ability in maths before the start of the experiment. Once again students who spoke up were seen as leaders. But here’s the surprise – they were also rated as good at maths – regardless of their actual competence:

What’s more, any speaking up at all seemed to do. Participants earned recognition for being the first to call out an answer, but also for being the second or third — even if all they did was agree with what someone else had said. Merely providing some scrap of information relevant to solving the problem counted too, as long as they did so often enough and confidently enough.

The take-home message of this research

The message from this research is that if you want to be perceived as a leader in your organization you need to speak up.

So what holds you back from contributing to meetings? If you’re anything like me, you might have the following thoughts:

  1. I’ll speak up, but only when I have something useful to offer
  2. I want to make sure that what I say makes sense, so I’ll just think about it a bit more before I speak up
  3. It’ll look like I’m dominating the meeting if I speak up too much
  4. There’s never a silence for me to speak in, and it’s rude to interrupt.

If you have these thoughts, you may find that you often miss opportunities to speak. By the time you’ve worked out what you want to say, the agenda has moved on.

These thoughts are all based on being concerned about what other people think of you. You’re concerned about being perceived as stupid, dominant or rude.

Sounds reasonable, but the research shows the opposite. People who speak up are seen as competent, intelligent leaders.

Tips for increasing your “speak-up” rate

1. Let go of perfection

Often we don’t speak up because we want to be perfect. But perfect is not realistic in the fast-moving flow of a discussion. A perfect thought that never gets expressed is useless. An imperfectly-formed but spoken thought will elevate you in the eyes of your colleagues.

2. Have a goal for the number of times you speak up at a meeting

It’s useful to have a goal to motivate yourself. If you currently don’t speak up often, commit to speaking up at least once at every meeting you attend.

3. Experiment with speaking first

Once you’ve mastered speaking at least once at every meeting, make it a point to speak first or as early as possible in the discussion.

4. Voice your support for what other people say

The research shows this is useful and it’s a relatively easy and low-risk way to express yourself.

5. Get used to interrupting people if you have to

In some aggressive corporate cultures this is the only way to get heard. I find it very difficult – but when I have to, I will. Here’s how I do it. I say “Can I just interrupt you there?” Then as soon as they’ve stopped speaking, I make my point.

5. Use a formula to help you structure your thoughts

A formula will help you think on your feet and you’ll come across as credible, organized and persuasive. An easy formula to use is PREP. PREP stands for Point, Reason, Example, Point. Here’s an example of how to use it:

Point – Speaking up can enhance your career

Reason – People who speak up are perceived as being competent and intelligent leaders

Example – Richard Backstrap has just been promoted for the second time this year. He speaks up a lot – but he’s no more competent than the rest of us (note: fictional example)

Point – Speaking up can enhance your career.

So speak up and enhance your career. Do you have any other tips to help people who find this hard?

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