The exact quote for the social media post was:
“Those u know who are bold, fiesty, and outspoken….who alwYs first to speak their mind and speak up for whats right at work or in life. Those who take up for the underdog?
Are they dumb or are they ur heros?
Im ALWAYS that person. Why am I always up there alone?
Not sure if Im a dumbass or a hero. Please weigh in.”
Misspellings and very poor grammar aside, the person who wrote it isn’t ignorant. In fact, they are very intelligent. I’m sure the post was written in a moment of frustration and banged out on their cell phone, which is why the grammar is so atrocious. If you could look past the grammar, there was much more to this post than a simple solicitation for feedback from a social media community. It was a real commentary on the human condition as it relates to the extra effort to do what’s right for the outliers and underdogs. A quick perusal of the comments showed that they almost universally echoed the sentiment of the original post. This was expected as the people who were leaving remarks were social media friends of the person posting the question. I saw many “You’re a hero!!” comments with lots of affirmational emoji’s strategically placed to reinforce the words. For me, I read more into the post. I felt there was much more interesting commentary to the question of “why am I always up there alone?”
In my mind’s eye, when I read that comment I was thinking about boldly speaking up at a meeting with your thoughts on the absurdity of whatever new program, plan or policy is being presented to a group of professionals. As almost anyone reading this article or listening to my podcast knows, these meetings are very common in the working world. Speaking up with a logical alternative viewpoint or an uncomfortable comment is something I’ve done quite often in my professional career. Naturally I was able to relate to the social media post. I also thought all about the answers to the questions.
The first and most obvious answer to the “up there alone” question is that people generally don’t care. It’s the “I got too much to worry about, I’m here to do a job and that’s it” attitude that so many people have. In the apathetic individual’s defense, they do care a little, but not so much that they want to deal with all of the ramifications of questioning the details of the new policy or program that’s being presented or debated.
Commenting specifically on the “those who take up for the underdog” part of the post, I immediately thought about systems that we have in place to run the world, even the ones which exist to help the disenfranchised. I know that no system can help all the underdogs, in fact they aren’t designed to. The systems that we have in place (education, manufacturing, legal, medical etc.) are all designed to maximize output, and that means targeting the middle of the bell curve. In manufacturing or design, the bell curve is the majority of products that are good enough to sell to the biggest market available. In schools it’s having educators design curriculum so that the grading curve is evenly distributed. For medical, it’s defaulting to the common diagnosis because it’s a quick way to turn over patients and have the majority of their issues addressed. Everything in these systems is built around these goals. I know from all of my professional experience that the majority of the people in any organization have tasks or metrics aimed at serving the majority customer or client, not the outliers. Why would anyone take up for the outlier underdog? You may even get in trouble for it. As an example, I had worked in a phone based technical support program very early in my career. One of our customers who was quite local was struggling to follow my instructions. Instead of spending over an hour on the phone with them, I told them to come to our office and I fixed their issue in ten minutes. I received a formal disciplinary write up for that over and above level of customer service for the underdog customer. I was taught at that moment that even though we were told to provide great customer service and help everyone, what I was really supposed to do is clear the call que as quickly as possible and not deviate from that. Did I ever speak up about the best way to provide customer service after that moment? The answer, of course, is no.
That story feeds into another reason why people don’t speak up for what’s right. Often the stated goals you are championing in your job aren’t the real goals of the organization. As an example, a school could talk about learning outcomes and providing a next generation education to all students. The reality is that the true goal of the organization is to process the students as quickly as possible so they can keep the doors open. Effort wasted on the edge cases, even if it’s technically the right thing to do, doesn’t fit the actual goals of the organization. In the business world this looks like an official policy of prioritizing customer service vs. the unspoken policy of prioritizing profits above anything else in the company. If you are the rabble rouser who is speaking up about a new program that will have a detrimental effect on customer service because you are told this is the highest priority, then all you are doing is causing yourself extra grief. I say this because no matter what the talking points of management are, your logic will be ignored and you will be frustrated, possibly to the point of venting on large social media platforms with interfaces that use copious amounts of the color blue.
Another simple reason why people don’t speak up is because speaking up causes extra time in a meeting. Everyone has something to do and speaking up, especially when a discussion ensues, can definitely have an affect on time. In informal post meeting conversations with colleagues discussing concerns, I’ve heard various versions of the statement “I was thinking about that but we had already been in there for an hour and a half and I was…!” They could have been hungry, tired, achey, bored, or feeling all sorts of other things. The point is that they had enough and the immediate emotional or biological need overshadowed their desire to speak up.
We also choose not to engage for the underdog because of workplace structure. Whatever you are speaking up for, the words don’t exist in a vacuum unto themselves. You are most likely causing additional work for other people where the long term benefit is questionable. Imagine speaking up about an issue at work that may require extra paperwork or exploring alternate methods to getting something done that’s more inclusive. Many people will have to take part in the extra work in more complex organizations. When we think about the number of outliers or stealth priorities of the organization, the change that was advocated for has a 99% probability of not being used or beneficial, even if it’s the right thing to do. Over time resentment will build from the staff to the outspoken employee. Usually nobody wants to have that sort of resentment aimed at them.
I think it gets worse with leadership. If there is additional work for the people in power, then that can go beyond resentment. For example if you point out that there can be issues A,B, and C with a new policy causing the boss to rewrite, or add addendums to that policy for the outliers. Most supervisors are going to start thinking of ways to remove the person causing what they believe to be additional work and more issues. I have found when there are obvious flaws, they are already understood and the leadership would rather address it on the off chance that the issues actually arise.
Another point from the original post was about “what is right.” I believe many people aren’t as aligned on values as the original post implies. If the rabble rouser was a teacher who was commenting on a new for-fee tutoring program, they may say “What about the poor people who can’t afford tutors, we need to come up with a way to serve them as that’s our mission” It’s been my experience that other people in the room will quietly think to themselves, “well I struggled and figured out how to pay for it for my kid and they can too” even if it’s not quite socially acceptable to say something like that in a meeting.
But what about the ones who agree with the person speaking out? Why aren’t they jumping up and adding a voice to the call for what’s right in work and life? I think the answer there is futility. When we were younger many of us have spoken out a few times for what’s right. Over time we have seen that the change we have brought has limited impact. You can see this played out on a national stage generation after generation with the big political issues of the day. Youth are engaged, they march, they post and tweet, but nothing of consequence happens. The youth grow up and give up being a champion for what’s right and focus on their own best lives. Often the change in our own work and life mirrors this cycle. After a while it’s simply better for most people to not engage anymore because they don’t believe anything will come of it.
So why is the feisty social media commentator alone? Like my tech support job experience, we have been penalized and/or socialized into not speaking up in work and life issues. It’s simply not beneficial for most individuals to speak out. I think it’s easy to do it if you have deep passion for the topic at hand and you have nothing to lose. I also think very few of us are in that position. No matter if it’s our status at work, our time, our social status or many other things, there is almost always something at risk for speaking out.
Since most of this post was in answer to the question of “Why am I always up there alone?” it’s skewed to all the reasons why you shouldn’t be feisty and speak up. I feel that I should make the point that it is good for someone to speak up every now and again, especially if the situation in question is truly egregious. Yes, you’ll be a lone voice for all the reasons I stated here and many others and not much will come of your comment, but it will often plant a seed. Over time many of those seeds will grow into real-world change for the better. That’s a good thing. So maybe the author had the wrong question. The question of the value of being outspoken and the limited choices of “dumb” or “hero” is false. The real question should be “Why aren’t there more people with passion enough to speak up and who have nothing to lose?” Unfortunately the answers to that question aren’t going to be simple. I bet you could talk about them for hours. And for the bold feisty and outspoken person, that’s probably one meeting where they won’t be up there speaking their mind alone.