No matter how senior they were or how badly they wanted to speak out, executives kept telling Molly Tschang, “I can’t say that!”
“Why not?” she’d ask, to which they’d respond, “That’s just how it is here.”
Tschang, an executive coach, knew these individuals had something important to say—not just for themselves, but for the business as a whole. Some had a fresh perspective they feared would upset their boss or an issue they needed to work through with a co-worker. For others, meetings were problematic. There was a clear need in their workplaces for greater empathetic understanding or, as Tschang explains, a shared reality—one that we are all responsible for.
But Tschang knew these individuals had what it took to speak out. They just didn’t know how to do it.
Today, Tschang, founder and CEO of Abella Consulting, and member of Marshall Goldsmith’s inspired 100 Coaches initiative, is on a mission to help all of us be ourselves at work. And her popular “Say It Skillfully” videos, which are how I first found her, specifically show us how to speak our truths, both at work and beyond. In Tschang’s own words, “The series helps people create a shared reality in which all voices are heard, including the unpopular ones, and [are intended to be] understood in the most effective manner possible.” You can find a full list of the videos here.
After watching them, it’s easier to think, “I can say that!”
I soon became a huge fan with a big question: How can all of us learn to speak out truthfully, without damaging our relationships at work?
Molly Tschang agreed to chat with me.
Our meeting was sublime.
If only all meetings were.
Two decades ago, when I was just starting out in teaching, I worked at a U.K. school for 11-18 year-olds, where, once a month, we had devastating end-of-day departmental meetings. Six of us—the whole faculty—attended. There was never an agenda, and most of us sat in silence, while our boss, an intimidating man (let’s call him E.), talked in a booming voice. E. liked to pontificate, and when he spoke, he’d either stare fixedly above our heads or into our eyes with an ironic smile.
Most of the time, I thought his approaches excluded students who struggled with literacy, and I knew I wasn’t alone in this. He dictated the curriculum we taught, yet none of us chose to speak out. The activism that had drawn me into teaching—my wish to help young students who found literacy hard—had to be kept secret from the manager above me, which meant I couldn’t brainstorm and learn collaboratively from people who had greater, and different, experiences.
I was soon disaffected. So were the other staff. Speaking out seemed impossible.
If only we’d known of Molly Tschang.
Eyes filled with determined light, Molly Tschang told me a statistic: Gallup research indicates that 85% of the world’s employees are “not engaged or actively disengaged at work.”
“Eighty-five percent?” I asked, stunned.
“That’s $7 trillion in lost productivity!” Tschang explained, again quoting Gallup. “I’m just not okay with this! No way does it need to be this way!”
Tschang, who once held executive leadership positions at Cisco Systems and U.S. Filter, where she led the integration of over 80 acquisitions globally, is on a mission. And it’s easy to see why.
Is 85% disengagement at work “just how it is here”?
“It isn’t that leaders drive to their workplaces thinking, ‘Let me create a climate of fear so no one says what I need to hear,’” Molly Tschang told me. “Employees don’t intentionally avoid speaking out, either.” The issue? At work, it’s very easy to make this someone else’s problem. “But if you honestly ask yourself, ‘How am I part of the problem?’” says Tschang, “this will reveal where you, as an individual, can make a conscious choice to be part of the solution instead.”
Looking back at my experiences in those meetings with E., I can see how I could have tried to make a change. I wasn’t the only member of staff who felt the way I did, yet we were scared of the consequences, scared of the tyranny. This reminds me of an experiment I read about long ago, when studying Psychology.
In his research, Roter (1979) (1) set up a program in a struggling, U.K. out-patient department. A group of disadvantaged women with medical needs were trained how to be more active as patients, asking the questions they really wanted to ask and taking a more assertive line. The problem? When these women went to their appointments, the doctors reacted defensively. The women had done a wonderful job, but the doctors interpreted their activeness as anger and anxiety. “It seems that both parties were disconcerted by the more active participation obtained by this means,” reported Roter, “since established roles and styles of interaction were being challenged.”
When we’re more assertive with others, we change the script, and no one likes to be without their lines. So, if we speak out at work, how can we avoid responses that might leave us even more afraid to speak out?
The answer, Molly Tschang told me, lies in our own skills and how we use them in our workplace dynamics, which often give us more insight than the doctor/patient dynamics we see in Roter’s research. “Our relationship capability,” Tschang explained, “includes communicating, working with emotions, disagreeing, and understanding what it’s like for another—that is, empathetic understanding. That’s the single biggest characteristic I see in the highest-performing teams. We know relationships matter, but we often over-focus on the task at hand, especially if the topic is sensitive. We may fear messing up our work dynamics. We may believe we’ll only make things worse.
“But when we speak out skillfully and mindful about how others receive us, we make spaces safer—an aspect that tends to create higher performance all round,” she said.
But what if, by speaking out, we can establish trust?
And what if that trust can create a safer space for all?
Tschang tells me, in no uncertain terms, that howwe speak out is everything. That’s what her videos achieve. They don’t just tellus to speak out. They showus how to do so effectively.
“It all comes down to saying it skillfully,” says Tschang.
Molly Tschang calls these situations growth opportunities. She offered me a structure that we can all use—a way of approaching those conversations we may dread. It’s all about our relationships:
- First, look at your relationship with yourself, says Tschang. “This is your emotional intelligence.” Using this, you can better know and articulate what’s going on for you, and alleviate others of the need to read your mind.
- Next, consider your relationship with others. “This is your social intelligence to identify and truly empathize with another person’s emotional experience,” says Tschang. “Do you appreciate what it feels like to be the other person and vice versa? That’s how we deeply connect.”
- Lastly, at the highest level, Tschang recommends that we consider relationship systems intelligence (2), which is the ability to identify with and collaborate with a team. Tschang suggests we ask ourselves, “Who are we together?” We construct relationships actively, creating a dynamic, so how do we each play into this?
In the first of her powerful “Say It Skillfully” videos, Molly Tschang introduces a scenario. Management is interviewing a candidate to be your new boss. You are the only non-management person to speak with the candidate, and everyone but you likes her. What do you do? Check out how Tschang leads us to use the above steps to deal with a scenario by saying what you need to in a skillful way.
So, could I have used this experience with my old boss E.? I would have needed to get my courage together and speak out in one those tough meetings, perhaps with the support of my fellow staff. When we spoke, Tschang helped me to envision a way of planning for this by giving me some specific tips:
- Planning carefully and intending an attitude of curiosity, rather than appearing confrontational.
- Beginning by asking whether the leader and team would be open to me expressing my thoughts on this particular issue. (Tschang explained to me that it’s very hard to say, “No, I’m not open to your opinions.”)
- When given the green light, expressing the good in the situation. (In my case, we were a committed team and wished to do our best for the students.)
- Focusing on the system we’re using with the students and whether it might be improved, rather than on any of the individual teachers involved.
- Making clear that my point of view isn’t about right/wrong or good/bad. Rather, it raises a discussion of what might be the best fit for the system. (Tschang gave me an example here: “We all know we want to serve the students well. So, let’s talk about what that means. Maybe we’ll have a difference of opinion, but this gives us a chance to better serve the students.”)
Now Tschang has given me these tips, here’s what I might have said:
- When asking permission to share my opinions:“I’m grateful to E. for bringing us together today. You know, I have some thoughts about the current curriculum. E., would you be open to my sharing these?”
- When sharing my opinions:“I’m grateful to you all for being open to my sharing. Now, I might be going out on a limb here, so I hope people appreciate that [Tschang gave me this language]. Certainly, I only want what’s best for us all, and I know our priority is always to serve the students fully. That in mind, I’m wondering, what if we’re missing something with regard to the curriculum? Might we be able to better support the students’ literacy? Perhaps if we tackled _____ in a different way, that might support the students’ learning more deeply.” Next, I would go ahead in sharing my specific points, always focusing on the good of the system and expressing curiosity.
Tschang mentions Marshall Goldsmith‘s work in this area: We all need to acknowledge that the leader is always the leader. However, as team members, we can influence the mission. “We may have to agree to disagree,” says Tschang. “In that case, the decision maker is the decision maker. We have to honor that.” If the leader refuses our points, then we may have a tough decision to make—such as whether to stay in the position or leave. But at least we’ve tried to influence the system.
I encourage you to watch Tschang’s videos. Find the full list here.
—Star Williams (writer, LGBTQ+ writing coach)
Molly Tschang, founder and CEO of Abella Consulting, is an expert in winning as one: helping senior management build powerful chemistry to lead together and be committed to each other’s success. She created and hosts the “Say It Skillfully” video series on LinkedIn and is a member of Marshall Goldsmith’s 100 Coaches initiative. She has held executive leadership positions at Cisco Systems and U.S. Filter, where she led the integration of over 80 acquisitions globally. Molly provides pro bono strategic advisory services to Community Solutions (homelessness), Relief International and Three Dot Dash® (youth mentoring). Follow Molly Tschang via Abella Consulting and LinkedIn.
Follow Molly at https://www.linkedin.com/in/mollytschang/www.abella.consulting
- Source: Roter, D. (1979) ‘Altering patient behaviour in interaction with providers’ in Oborne, J.J. Gruneberg, M.M. and Eiser J.R. (eds.) (1979) Research in Psychology and Medicine, vol. 2, London, Academic Press.
- Source: CRR Global. “Relationship Systems Intelligence.” https://www.crrglobal.com/relationship-systems-intelligence.html