Choosing to Challenge – The Ripple Effect of Speaking Up

Choosing to Challenge – The Ripple Effect of Speaking Up

Being resourced as organisations, leaders, and individuals to challenge in a way that lands well and having the skills to receive and respond to challenge, are as important as ever. When this work is prioritised it is a key driver for creating inclusive cultures and enhancing gender equity across organisations.

Redefining challenge; does it have to be a fight?

Traditionally, ‘challenge’ has been interpreted as a fight, with each party striving to prove that their perspective is correct. Google the definition of challenge and you will find phrases like……‘dispute the truth or validity of’ and ‘invite (someone) to engage in a contest’.

For many of us, the mere thought of speaking up can trigger an alert state in which we prepare to defend our ideas or beliefs and we expect our ‘opponents’ to do the same. But is challenge about winning or losing? Defending and protecting? What if instead it could be about evolution and growth?

When challenge is offered without ego, without winners and losers, it provides an opportunity for a constructive dynamic and becomes the catalyst for different perspectives, diverse thinking, elevated discussions, and accountability. With this approach ‘challenge’ is no longer defined as a contest but as critical for personal, team and organisational growth and transformation.

What needs to be challenged?

In most workplaces, there’s an expectation that people will behave appropriately, and yet we hear far too many stories where this is not the case and poor behaviour is still overlooked or excused. Whether it’s a gendered assumption, a dismissive remark, bullying, or touching someone in a way that makes them uncomfortable – it’s important to challenge these behaviours. If we want workplaces that are respectful and inclusive, we have to create environments where it is safe to speak up and challenge.

What would you be prepared to call out if you felt there was no risk to speaking up?

  • Questioning whether a woman can be appointed or promoted because she may want to have children
  • Leering, sexist jokes, or touching that makes someone uncomfortable
  • Condescending or dismissive comments
  • Eye-rolling and sarcasm regarding “political correctness”
  • Sidelining or ignoring the contributions of certain people

In our coaching work with professional women, we regularly hear alarming stories; situations where women have had to endure unwanted advances by people responsible for their career progression, crass comments and innuendo from peers and bosses, and instances where senior people were unwilling to intervene and uphold the stated organisational code of conduct.

Why don’t we challenge?

It feels risky or unsafe

Whether you’re a victim or a bystander, it can feel risky to speak up, to challenge the status quo, to question existing power dynamics, or to call out sexist comments or unwelcome advances – so we often turn a blind eye, ignore the joke or change the subject and do our best to avoid the situations. We have all been there.

People are afraid of the consequences

The first question all leaders can ask themselves is are people scared to speak up? The risks, whether real or perceived, act as the primary barrier for people being willing to call out inappropriate or poor behaviour.

– The risk that the relationship will be irreparable
– The risk that a deadline will not be met
– The risk that the behaviour will escalate
– That risk that I won’t be believed
– The risk to both my physical and psychological safety
– The risk of losing my job
– The risk to future career progression
– The risk to my teammates’ safety and career progression
– The risk to the organisation’s board and leadership team’s reputation
– The risk to the organisation’s reputation as a whole

How your organisation changes the perception of these risks is a crucial step in creating an environment where it is safe to challenge.

The paradox of challenging

Whether an individual feels they can or can’t challenge inappropriate behaviour at work is fundamentally linked to their environment and beliefs. The challenger has to be both conscious that certain behaviour is not appropriate and then feel safe and confident enough to call it out. However, paradoxically the only way to create a safe environment is to be willing to challenge the behaviours that make it unsafe.

The people who have the most power in the system, senior leaders, are the culture carriers for making it safe. We’ve recently heard in two organisations, instances where young women have questioned bullying and sexist behaviour. In both cases, senior women advised them not to ruffle feathers, to accept ‘that’s just the way he is’ – every time this happens those leaders have made the workplace environment less safe.

How to challenge

How to challenge in a way that is constructive, feels comfortable to do so, and is human-centred with positive intent.

Define what a respectful, inclusive workplace looks and feels like:

  • Safe – it’s easy, risk-free, and people are able to speak up and challenge
  • Clarity – we know who we are as an organisation, what we stand for, what is acceptable and what is not (we don’t tolerate politics, bullying, sexual harassment, sexism)
  • Inclusive – we get that we are all in this together (we understand the collective cost every time I am a bystander rather than an upstander)
  • Aligned – our values are actively lived in our behaviours and role modeled by our leaders
  • Accountable – there are consequences; if the behaviour has been called out several times and there is no change, there are clear consequences that demonstrate we do not accept behaviour that undermines respect in our organisation

Create an environment where it is safe to challenge

  • Create a culture where it is safe (physically, emotionally, and mentally) to call out inappropriate behaviour and comments
  • Encourage everyone to catch it small and early. If it is safe to speak up early, that lowers the chance of the issue escalating.
  • Teach people to make it about the behaviour, not the person (hold the judgement, focus on the outcome)
  • Stay calm and neutral – avoid blaming or shaming the person
  • Do it with purpose – in service of a respectful workplace (don’t do it to be right or assert your moral superiority)

Make it safe with no ramifications

Calling out poor behaviour must be seen as acting in alignment with the vision and values of the organisation and essentially, the right thing to do. The organisation must make it clear that doing what is right is both required and rewarded:

– There will be no repercussions for saying ‘that’s not the standard we accept here’
– Living the values and speaking up is a necessary part of being a successful team member

Policy change is not enough

While clear anti-bullying and harassment policies and procedures are critical, there is often a contrast between the formal culture (the rules) of an organisation and the informal culture (the actions, teasing, snide remarks, rolling eyes, brushes, and touching that are palmed off as ‘nothing serious’). Informal culture (the unwritten ground rules) can dominate behaviour as people respond strongly to what they see and experience rather than the contents of a policy document.

Don’t leave it to the victims

For too long and far too often, we have relied on the victims of sexist and harmful behaviour to be the ones who call it out. This is a minefield on many levels and often ends in the victim losing their job and career trajectory while the aggressor is untouched or even promoted. Given the power dynamics at play, it is essential that leaders and others feel confident to call out bad behaviour and it is not left to the victim who has already had to bear the pain and difficulty of the bullying or harassing.

Everyone is accountable for respectful behaviour

Most people know what the right thing to do is when someone else behaves badly, but whether they do it or not depends on the culture, environment, and a complex interaction of identity, beliefs, the need to belong and the unwritten ground rules.

How you can challenge

Expand your self-awareness

The very nature of challenging someone is likely to bring up emotions and or concerns depending on the nature of the conversation to be had. Taking responsibility for your reactions is crucial ahead of engaging in any dialogue with others so that there is a positive foundation for the discussion. It is important to avoid blaming or shaming during the discussion so the more we take care of our own triggers the easier this will be.

It is also worthwhile to check in on any assumptions or stories that are playing out and to consider giving people the benefit of the doubt or an opportunity to clarify or even withdraw a comment. We love the examples journalist Catherine Fox shares here such as “Could you say that again” or “What did you mean by that”.

Clearly explain your intention

In most circumstances, feedback or conversations focused on challenge are generally well-intentioned. When looking to challenge be explicitly clear on your intention and what you are trying to achieve. It can be useful to orientate around the organisation’s values or purpose or developing a respectful workplace. Don’t do it to be right or make someone else wrong.

When you are judging the other person, they naturally become defensive or protective (it feels as though their character is being questioned). However, when you deliver a message that points out the behaviour with a neutral tone, it invites the person to question their approach and consider a different perspective.

Clear is kind, unclear is unkind – Brene Brown

It can be easy to get overwhelmed about needing to have the right words when delivering a message that feels uncomfortable or awkward. Simple, clear and direct communication is the best approach. Don’t pad out your message with too much soft or minimising language as this can send mixed messages.

Focus your message on a particular behaviour / issue and its impact (don’t make it about the person) and take responsibility for ensuring that the message lands as you intend it to be heard.

Make it safe and low-risk

Look for ways in which you can foster environment where it’s safe to speak up and challenge and where it feels safe to be challenged. Consider whether it is more appropriate to discuss the issue one to one or if it is important to role model the behaviour with others present. The more senior you are in the system, the more responsibility you have to demonstrate behaviours and culture that the organisation is seeking to create. If you are more junior, be mindful of the politics and dynamics at play and consider how and when to challenge and respond to challenge.

Start small

Catch it small and early – it’s much easier to speak up early on the small items that feel lower risk than waiting for the issues to grow and become more significant. Once in my career, I challenged the use of inappropriate language in meetings not because I was offended by it, but to hold a boundary around the sort of behaviours that were expected in a professional environment.

Remove the judgement

The way in which you challenge, and how you’re being when you challenge is as important as what you say. When we are in judgement, the other person naturally becomes defensive or protective (their character is being questioned) – when we deliver a message that points out the behaviour with a neutral tone, it invites the person to question their approach and consider a different perspective.

How to respond to being challenged

While there is a lot of discussion and focus on how to challenge, far less attention is placed on how to receive a challenge, to encourage feedback even if it is uncomfortable. Expanding your ability to receive challenge with grace and a growth mindset (even when we dislike it) is an important aspect of emotional maturity.

Listen for the intent behind the words

When being challenged or feeling under pressure it can be very easy to jump to conclusions or make assumptions about what someone is saying or what their true intent is. Suspend judgement and really listen to what is being shared with a genuine interest to understand all the relevant information on the table.

Ask questions to clarify and be constructive

Providing constructive feedback or challenging a thought or behaviour takes courage and can be uncomfortable for everyone involved. Instead of taking a defensive stance focused on who is right or wrong, get curious and ask questions to gain a clearer perspective of what is being discussed. Be cautious of getting trapped in your stories and escalating the issues beyond what is being put forward.

Own your part in the dynamic

It is human nature to want to defend ourselves when we feel challenged or unfairly criticised; it can feel like rejection or an attack on our identity. It is useful to question this often-automatic reaction when navigating challenging conversations; resistance or defensive responses will not create the conditions for a constructive dialogue. Use techniques like mindfulness or slowing your breath to stay present and manage any physical or emotional responses. Don’t be afraid to ask for some time to process the conversation and circle back after you have had some time to think about a response. If you are feeling unusually triggered by a discussion it can be useful to bounce the key points off a trusted colleague or mentor for some different perspectives.

Actively seek out feedback

One of the hardest parts about being challenged or receiving feedback is that we are often unprepared or surprised by the conversation. Creating a regular system whereby you proactively ask for feedback (what went well, what could be done differently) can be a valuable way to create a safe space to give and receive feedback and challenge.

The way in which you receive challenge, and how you’re being when you are challenged is as important as what you say. When we are in judgement or responding in a defensive way, the other person naturally becomes defensive or protective (their character is being questioned) – when we listen, remain curious, and seek to understand we demonstrate a willingness to be open to ideas and other ways of thinking.

Everyone at every level has the potential to contribute to and create an environment where giving and receiving challenge and feedback is expected. When this is done consistently, people feel safe and can focus on delivering great work, being innovative, encouraging diverse opinions, and create respectful workplaces.

To learn more about how we can support you to create an environment with fosters gender equity and a sustainable pipeline of female talent, email