Men have trouble speaking up at work, too

“You say something first.”
“You say something first.”
Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
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Women are often told to develop a muscle for speaking up at work, especially to express dissent. It’s not comfortable when you’ve been socialized to be pleasant and agreeable your whole life, but do it anyway, we’re told.

That may be solid advice, but women are not the only group that need to hear it, at least according to a recent SurveyMonkey survey. In a new poll of a nationally representative group of working Americans, only 58% of women said they believe they can voice an unpopular opinion at work without negative consequences. But men didn’t feel that much more comfortable with the idea: Only 68% of male respondents expressed a similar fearlessness about causing friction.

SurveyMonkey conducted the poll for its new influencers campaign, in this case in conjunction with Draymond Green, an NBA player with the Golden State Warriors. Asked what question he’d like to pose to Americans about their workplace experiences, he was curious about who felt they had the power to speak freely, even when they held a minority opinion. Among all genders, a combined 63% of people said they did, which means more than a third of them don’t.

Perhaps Americans are not actually as inclined to rebelliousness and independent thought as their national mythology would have us believe, and despite their reputation abroad:

Or maybe people have forgotten how to disagree with each other respectfully, having become most at home interacting with devices, anyway, so we avoid even mildly confrontational conversations?

Whatever the reasons, it’s not great news for the state of American innovation that more than a third of its workers don’t feel empowered to speak freely. Diverse opinions and polite debate are known to help groups slow down and make thoughtful decisions. Being able to disagree with civility is also the only way to cut through the amount of false information or speculation passed off as fact in company conversations, says John Petrocelli, an associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University. When friends get together to work on a project, they’re often too focused on enriching their relationships to question each other. That sets the conditions for bullshit to flourish, he says.

Speaking of which, in their new book It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work, authors Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the cofounders of Basecamp, call out “My door is only open” policies, dismissing them as nonsense. That phrase is a “cop-out, not an invitation,” they write. It only comes in handy after a fiasco, so the boss can ask, “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

In reality, they say, employees aren’t going to go wander over to their manager’s desk, never mind the CEO’s office, to talk about something that’s bothering them. Managements experts say people are too afraid to be seen as complainers and often don’t believe the effort will make a difference. “If the boss really wants to know what’s going on, the answer is embarrassingly obvious: They have to ask!” the Basecamp founders argue, adding, “Not vague self-congratulatory bullshit questions, like ‘What can we do even better?’ But the hard ones like ‘What’s something nobody dares to talk about?’ Or ‘Are you afraid of anything at work?'”

Managers also might want to be mindful that women will not volunteer their criticisms as often as men, and that women speak less when they’re outnumbered by their male colleagues—though it’s important to recognize that many men need some coaxing to speak their minds, too.