I am always facing a dilemma of whether to speak up and challenge things I think need changing at work, but I often end up simply keeping quiet, because I want to be seen as a supportive team player and move up in the organization. At the same time, I don't see "yes" people snagging many promotions. How can I speak up to challenge things and still be seen in a positive light?
Speaking up at work - being the sand in the oyster that challenges things in ways that make good things happen - is a great way to gain credibility at work. Research shows that people who speak up regularly are rated much more highly by their bosses than those who don't. When I interviewed CEOs for my new book, Stepping Up, they routinely told me they admire people who speak up. Here is some advice on how to be seen as a positive irritant:
Debate up, advocate down
Be known as a person who debates up but advocates down. This means that you are willing to raise questions and challenge those above you, but you are always a team player supporting those above you to colleagues. Many people make the mistake of doing the opposite: They never challenge up and are always questioning the decisions of management to their peers. This is a sure career killer.
Use "I and we" language
When challenging things, talk in personal, inclusive terms, as opposed to talking about "you." For example: "We need to think carefully about the impact of this decision" or "We need to make sure we work out all the kinks before we roll it out to everyone," rather than, "You need to rethink this decision."
Be a devil's advocate
One of the best ways to challenge things and be seen in a positive light is to be known as someone who looks at the other side of things. Preface comments by saying "Just to be devil's advocate …" If people get used to you taking the other side, even of positions you favour, you will become known as someone whose opinion matters.
Turn complaints into ideas
Research suggests that the only thing worse than being a "yes" person is being seen as a "complainer." The best way to do this is to always offer ideas on how something could be better, rather than criticizing how things are. If you feel staff spend too much time in the conference room, rather than saying, "There are too many meetings around here," try "I think our time could be used more effectively if we streamlined our time in meetings" or "I have an idea on how we can accomplish the same things and spend less time in meetings."
People who are argumentative tend to be seen as go-getters but the moment you get personal you will be seen in a negative light. Argue about ideas but never get personal or accusatory. Be especially careful of phrases such as "you always" and "you never." Debate ideas rather than criticize people.
Choose your shots
We all know people who challenge everything. After a while, we tune them out. Sit back, take in the conversation, waiting for just the right spot when the group is stuck, then speak up with your ideas.
Getting angry, even if it's because you feel passionate about your idea, is almost never a good career move. If you feel angry you will probably sound angry. When you feel angry, count to 10. If you're really angry make that a count to 500 so you can be calm and sound convincing when you do open your mouth.
Contrary to popular belief, "yes" people don't get ahead at work. The more you learn to speak up and challenge things in a positive manner, the more your career success will grow.
John Izzo is a Vancouver-based author and leadership adviser.