Speaking Up Takes Courage

Editor’s Note: This entry is part of an occasional series of posts from the ACRL Board of Directors.  In this post, Vice-President/ President-Elect Steven J. Bell discusses developing the courage to actively and effectively participate in meetings.

At ALA Midwinter many ACRL members will spend conference time in committee meetings and discussion/interest groups. As you prepare for your meetings and discussions, think ahead to how you can more effectively participant by speaking out. Too often we attend these meetings, and simply drift through them. While others do the talking and volunteering, we may be reluctant to speak because we think our ideas are unworthy, will not be appreciated by others or we lack confidence in our own potential to contribute. We think it is better to stay silent than risk saying something that might be considered uninformed or which broaches a difficult issue.

I got to thinking about this because I volunteered to develop a personal assessment instrument for ACRL Board members. As a strategic Board focused on continuous improvement, effectiveness assessment is a critical part of every Board meeting. The Board uses the Plus/Delta method. During this exercise Board members share what they thought worked well at the meeting (Pluses) and what didn’t work so well (Delta). It looks something like this:

Plus/Delta exercise
An example of a Plus/Delta exercise

Time is allotted at the end of each day to conduct this exercise, but its success depends on individual board members having the courage to speak up about what worked and what didn’t. If we can be honest about our performance, we can work to build on our strengths and improve weaknesses. When I was drafting the personal assessment form, I was thinking about questions that might encourage Board members to ask themselves if they spoke up when they should have or remained silent when it may have been productive to speak out.

For inspiration I went back to two blog posts that emphasize the importance of speaking up in meetings and that doing so takes courage. In her essay “Your Silence is Hurting Your Company” Nilofer Merchant confesses to a problem that afflicts many of us in committee meetings or discussion groups. She says “I worried about…being too wrong” so instead of contributing her perspective she sat silently during meetings. As a relatively new member of ACRL’s Board of Directors,  I know exactly where she’s coming from. Dare I open my mouth and say something completely obvious, ridiculous or shallow? That would hardly instill confidence in my leadership capabilities.

The one thing in my favor is that if I do say something foolish, wrong or both, it wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened – and I’ve lived through it. That’s the key thing. No matter what happens life will go on. Abraham Lincoln is credited with stating that it is better to keep silent and be thought a fool, than speak up and remove all doubt. Once you’ve removed the doubt a few times, it makes it easier to take the risk of doing so…and there’s a reason for that. Merchant know that as well:

When we are silent, we are hurting the outcome. You see, minority viewpoints have been proven to aid the quality of decision making in juries, by teams and for the purpose of innovation. Research proves then even when the different points of view are wrong, they cause people to think better, to create more solutions and to improve the creativity of problem solving.

Even when your viewpoint may not be quite right, even if you say something that seems obvious, even if you say something based more on emotion than rational-analytical thinking, it may be the catalyst for taking the discussion in a different and better direction. It may spark an idea in another participant. It may help to clarify the issues for others. There are all kinds of possibilities, but if you stay silent nothing happens. Speaking up takes courage according to Merchant:

Perhaps risking being the fool is necessary to move forward. Underlying all that is courage – Courage to speak, courage to risk, courage to step forward rather than sit quietly. Courage to break the silence.

Courage helps, but it doesn’t hurt to have confidence either. Although his post focuses on the corporate workplace, in “Speaking Up Takes Confidence, Candor and Courage” Ron Ashkenas makes the case that poor communication is a common source of organizational dysfunction. In particular, this happens when staff keep their thoughts to themselves. Why do they stay silent? Lack of confidence in our ability to make an effective contribution to the conversation. As you head to meetings, think in advance about ways in which you can take small steps to increase personal confidence in your ability to join the conversation.

Jack Welch used to say that self-confident people are one of the key characteristics of a high-performing organization – because they will not be afraid to speak up. But nobody becomes self-confident just because Jack Welch (or some blogger) says that it’s the right thing to do. Instead you have to gain that confidence by pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone a little at a time.

As you think ahead to your ALA Midwinter activity, visualize yourself in those meetings and discussions. See yourself speaking up and making a productive contribution. Remember that the other people in the room are your colleagues, and you have their support.  They want to know what you think, and what you have to say can make a difference. I hope you will be courageous.


  1. I agree with the quote from Merchant. “Minority viewpoints” are essential to advance action agendas. In my experience with professional and personal organizations and taskforces, I’ve been heard yet not acknowledged/listened to. The discussion will continue until a more seasoned member shares the same idea/sentiment and it is welcomed. I like that you utilize the Plus/Delta method. Hopefully this will hold members accountable to real communication. Going beyond personality, passion and procedures, I try to ask each person do they have something to contribute. (By the way, in the Greek, Delta means change.) My two cents for a slow afternoon in Indiana. 🙂

  2. Hi Stephen
    I really like your message about speaking up at meetings. Mind if I quote you and adapt the post for the PA Library Association Bulletin?
    Thanks, Deb

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