Shhh…. What’s that I hear?

It’s a voice—someone expressing her thoughts and opinions authentically while interacting with the world.

Though we’re in the 21st century, fewer people than you might think are free to express their opinions.

Quick research on this topic shows that 25 countries limit speech in some way. See for yourself here or in this article.

While I find it deeply disturbing that a substantial part of humankind still lives under some form of a regime that limits personal rights and freedom, I’d like to bring your attention to one segment filled with people who voluntarily remain silent, pushing the mute button on their voices and suffering as a result.

That segment? Women in business, both in leadership and not.

If you are outspoken or in leadership, you may think that colleagues or team members choosing to mute themselves is not your problem. But it is. If you brush off the muted ones, or treat them lightly, you will be less effective as an individual and as a leader.

Read on – I will share a story that explains why.


A tale of two muted women

During a visit to one of my employer’s locations, which was in the midst of ongoing organizational change, I had the privilege of speaking with many people about their challenges, career wishes and development needs. These were deep conversations.

Discussions with four colleagues stood out.

Two of the four women were grateful for the opportunities that led to their current roles. They were proud of their achievements and clear about the next steps in their development. They directly and consistently communicated their intentions and vision.

The other two women, while equally skilled, experienced and supported by their leaders, were not in the same place. They were concerned, disappointed and undervalued.

I wondered how this was possible and ran through the conversations again in my mind.

Here’s how one of them went.

Me: What makes you believe your opinion is not valued?

Colleague: They prepared a document on my subject matter without me.

Me: I see. Did you ask to be included?

Colleague: No, I didn’t know they were meeting without me and preparing this document.

Me: Once you found out, what did you do?

Colleague: Nothing.

Me: I see. And what do you think of the content of the document?

Colleague: I don’t know, I haven’t seen it.

Me: Did you ask to see it?

Colleague: No.

Me: Why not?

Colleague: I’m afraid to ask.

Me, puzzled and concerned: You’ve just been appointed to this new role. That’s a vote of confidence in you. This is your chance to establish your ground rules. I understand that you’d like to change how you work with them, but to do so, you must express yourself.

Colleague: It’s difficult for me.

Me: Hmm. What is the reason?

Colleague: I’m afraid. I’m afraid to speak my mind as they may not like it.

So what was wrong?

One woman was afraid that “they” might not like her. She suffered quietly, feeling isolated and concerned about her future. Instead of voicing her opinion, she let the fear eat away at her self-confidence.

While speaking with the other woman who wasn’t feeling great about recent events in her professional life, we identified the root cause of her distress –  she left important questions unanswered. Instead of seeking answers, she assumed. She drew unfavorable conclusions about her leader, someone with whom she otherwise enjoyed a trusted long-term relationship. As a professional, she was concerned about managing her emotions. She stayed muted and alone, her negative thoughts spinning.

Both women chose to not speak up.

Both stayed alone with their thoughts and unspoken desires. They pressed the mute button, so team members and leaders had no idea what was going on and couldn’t help as a result.

The bigger picture here is that an organization can miss out on the talent, engagement and productivity of highly skilled people and potentially lose them. People who don’t feel valued for all they can bring to the table are not professionally fulfilled. They don’t stay long.

Back to the women. Needless to say, I wanted to both hug and shake them at the same time, just to get them out of – what I perceived to be – a cage they had built for themselves. I wanted to shout: “Please don’t let the world miss out on the unique being that is you!”

But I didn’t. It doesn’t work that way.

What to do if you are the muted?

If you find yourself in a situation where it’s challenging to speak up, use these tips to limit your fears and lead to the best outcomes.

  • Prepare your points so you’ll be ready when an opportunity to unmute presents itself.
  • Create the opportunity if one doesn’t present itself.
  • Understand your own style of communicating and responding while in challenging conversations; doing so will help you manage your emotions in a constructive way.
  • Deepen your self-awareness to understand your true motivation. When you know what matters most to you, it is easier to discuss your desires.
  • Be direct, professional and concrete about your wishes.
  • Consider the style and preferences of your counterpart. For example: when you know that your boss enjoys details and is not comfortable with intuition-driven decision making, be ready to provide data and facts to substantiate your requests.
  • Practice what you’ll say and how; ask a friend or partner to listen and give feedback.
  • Be ready to compromise; know what points you are willing to negotiate.
  • Recap at the end to make sure both of you have the same understanding.
  • If you don’t succeed the first time, know that you succeeded in using your voice.

Do it. Unmute.

Don’t let anything, even cultural differences, stop you or become an excuse. Only you can press that button. It’s not comfortable, but it’s worth it.

What’s your duty as a leader?

If you’re a leader or a team member and notice a sudden change in how a colleague shows up or if you simply don’t hear from them, please don’t wait until he or she unmutes. Don’t wait until a project is over, until you have more time or when you return from your travels. Make a connection.  You may save a relationship and talent, and help your organization too.

We—all of us—are at our best only when connected.

And what became of the women I told you about, the muted ones? After our conversations, they both decided to press the button to unmute and use their voices. 🙂

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  1. Unmuting is also prevalent in parenting. Some parents choose not to discipline their children; or they don’t want to upset them. Their disciplining skills maybe different than their spouse. They choose to want to be their childs friend.
    Children need structure and discipline, so that they won’t grow up to be out of control adults. My kids have enough friends. The muted parent needs to unmute themself, and let the children know who is in charge. “I am your Father 1st, not your friend!!” Because both parents need to be on the same page, or the child will try to play you against each other.

    1. Hi Chaz, thanks for sharing your view. I have reflected on your words and thought of the relationship with my mom. I respect(ed) her beyond words and considered her my friend in the same time. Her ability to be both a friend and parent made me feel that I could share anything and she would be my guiding light and support me in discovering what is the right thing for me. So I wish to think that we don’t have to choose to be either a friend or a parent. I believe the trick is in getting the balance between both roles right and knowing when it is important to unmute the parent and when to be a listening friend.

  2. Really good content, I can imagine where you were on this visit. I am going to share with my leadership team and women in my organizations and express the importance of this topic. Thank you for this insightful article

    1. Thank you, Bob. I appreciate you helping to trigger the conversation within your organization and would love to hear what your team thinks. I wonder where your travels brought you this time as the time stamp on your comment shows you are a day ahead. Safe journey!

      1. Hi Dana,
        Weird on the timestamp, here in Arizona, do not really travel these days. So far really great feedback. I initially sent to all the women in my organization then leadership team. Will continue to promote within. I also love the blog, you are really talented in how you craft these relevant and meaningful insights.

    2. Bob — thanks for sharing this article!

      Dana — thanks for writing this article; female leaders, both up and coming leaders and seasoned leaders, need to hear this message more frequently. I will pass this article along. Hope all is well with you and Pete –

      1. Thank you, Beth, for your comment and for spreading the message!
        All is well on our end and I hope for the same on yours.

  3. Having worked in organizational structures for over 40 years, there were times one had to “know when to hold them, and know when to fold them, know when to walk away, know when to run! “Leadership continued to change and sadly less worthy voices would capture a leaders ear. In my belief system, every voice needed to be heard. Custodians, nurses, bus drivers , aides all brought ideas to the table that went unnoticed by teachers and myself. Children often possessed the greatest insights. Following their interests was always the best bet! People needed to be heard!

    1. Thanks for sharing, Paul. Your comment is a good reminder that unmuting voices is key in any environment, not only in business.

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