What do you do when your sponsor or higher ups are asking for things that are not in alignment with the work you are doing? Speaking up is not always easy but with some self-awareness and strategies you can confidently go forth and challenge! 

According to research from Quantum Workplace, about half of employees don’t regularly speak their minds at work. There is a genuine fear that speaking up or challenging a sponsor is a career limiting move. I believe, and know from experience, that what is actually a career limiting move is knowing something is wrong and not speaking up.

I experienced this early in my career as a project manager when I was tasked with leading a nation-wide implementation in a short time frame and with NO resources. I could have sat at my desk discouraged, or even just attempted to do it all on my own, but I knew better. 

Asked to do the impossible

Unfortunately, my manager discounted the effort and was unwilling to help. So I prepared some talking points, considered my audience, and called a meeting to discuss this challenge. The meeting went amazingly well (I was so nervous because this manager had a fiery personality), but my research and preparation gave me the confidence to speak up, propose a solution, and gain his support.

The implementation was incredibly challenging, but it would have been impossible as it was originally laid out. So when you’re asked to do the impossible, look for ways to make it possible and present those ideas with confidence. And if there’s no way to make it so, say that, too. Your organization and your career depend on it.

Preparation is crucial to the success of a difficult conversation and your communication skills will need to be on point.

Know this:

Everyone communicates differently. 

Do this: 

Learn the communication preferences of others – in this case your sponsor or manager. 

Understand this:

Your own communication style. 

Identify this:

Where the potential for conflict lies in the different communication styles. 

Challenge for the win-win

Stephen Covey reminds us to balance courage and consideration. He also points out that we can craft interactions that are win-win by working effectively with others to achieve optimal results. So, when we have to speak truth to power, when we know we have to raise important issues we use consideration to do this in a way that:

  • Resonates
  • Doesn’t offend 
  • Can be heard and actioned. 

Never be speaking and not listening

Another balance we need to strike is with our level of assertiveness. Enough to be heard, not so much that we are not listening. Ask questions. Seek to understand why they are taking the stance they are taking. When sponsors or managers are putting pressure on you they are likely responding to pressure from above them. They’re the meat in a pressure sandwich! 

Once you understand where they are coming from you can respond with facts – not emotions. Draw on your vast experience and respond with your analysis. Justify the decisions and don’t be afraid to reveal what you think they ought to know. 

Challenge calmly, with confidence – you owe it to yourself, your organization and your career.