Former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett found her voice at work by speaking up for others

It’s not all about you.
It’s not all about you.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Speaking up isn’t always easy, especially at work.

Even those of us who don’t necessarily consider ourselves shy sometimes hesitate to chime in for fear of being wrong or sounding stupid. Yet what if there was no one else to say it? Would you find a way to be heard?

The answer for Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to US president Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017, is “yes.” In her upcoming book Finding My VoiceJarrett reveals that as a young lawyer in private practice in Chicago she was painfully shy. It never really went away, not even when she was advising the commander in chief and speaking to world leaders and the international press.

The counterintuitive trick that turned her into a talker? Advocating for others.

When Jarrett began working in city government as in-house counsel, she discovered that she had plenty to say and dared to finally voice her opinions. And she did it because she wasn’t speaking for herself. One of her first bosses in public service had to push Jarrett very hard to convince her to demand a promotion from higher-ups, for example, and she basically did it to get back in the good graces of her supervisor.

Every day, Jarrett fielded complaints from citizens about services that were failing them. At meetings with city managers who were often distracted, she became a voice for people, bringing their very real problems to leaders’ attention. Jarrett writes:

One reason I originally picked commercial law over litigation was because litigation would have required me to stand on my feet and speak in front of an audience. It was also because I don’t like living in a world defined by winners and losers. However, when “winning” isn’t about personal advancement but rather about being a force for good, I found the confidence to give voice to my opinions. My clients were now the citizens of Chicago, and I was emboldened to push back on their behalf when I disagreed with policymakers inside government or folks outside trying to take advantage. I started to make trouble. I started to make waves.

Jarrett transformed from self-described “shrinking violet” to bold advocate. Shifting her focus on making life better for others, rather than personal advancement, made it possible, and eventually catapulted her to to the highest levels of American government. This selfless shift ended up serving her incredibly well, too.

There’s new research to support Jarrett’s claim that people are emboldened by responsibility. A series of recent studies published in the Academy of Management Journal, called “The Voice Bystander Effect,” shows that  individual employees are increasingly reluctant to speak up about concerns and needs the more they believe that issues are well-known or are simply open secrets that aren’t being addresses. When they think that managers are unaware of the problems, and feel responsible for making issues known, they behave more boldly.

The findings suggest what Jarrett can attest to. The key to finding your voice can be using it on behalf of others first. In turn, taking responsibility and serving the greater good will work wonders for you, too.