For Better Or For Worse: Why I Speak Up For Myself At Work Every Time
Respect is a high stakes game
In the last 3 years, I’ve developed a passion for self-advocacy. Often times working in large institutions, people are encouraged to just accept the unacceptable. Take the bullsh*t with the paycheck, and put our real thoughts and selves to the side, in an attempt to assimilate quietly and peacefully. But the reality of that is while it keeps everyone else around you in a state of poppy fields and rose-colored glasses, it makes us (the person stifling their truth) sick and tired. Literally and metaphorically.
For the first 3 years of my career, I also drank the "shut up and be nice" kool-aid. But eventually I was over it and when I was, there was no turning back. I remember the day I had enough. Up until that moment I had spent much of my time mincing my words. Literally taking the time to cut down, translate and process my real thoughts into digestible sentences, which were easy for everyone (except me) to absorb. The pressure from all of that mincing was intense. It gave me chest pains, headaches and a meeting stutter (that's when you stutter in work meetings because you’re trying to think of the “right thing to say right now”). I wanted to make it easier for people to work with me, even if it meant I couldn’t stand working with them.
The first time I ever spoke up for myself, it cost me my job. I skim over the details of this one because it’s not the moral of the story and I don’t think anyone should let a layoff deter them from being they’re most authentic self. Also, I hated my job and the people that I worked with and so I retrospectively hypothesize it was for the best. The second time, however, I had favorable results. It was about 3 weeks from my last day, at my agency, as I had recently resigned, and my childishly privileged developer “teammate” had just missed yet another deadline. Upon his rationalization for missing this deadline, he had mentioned that it shouldn’t matter whether he makes his deadlines or not, all of my schedules were arbitrary anyway. And that's when it happened. My chest got tight, my stomach became nauseous, my ears got hot, my eyes started to tear up and my eyebrows furrowed as my mouth started moving rapidly.
I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember that I had just told this developer baby all kinds of things about himself, and I also remember my boss in the room with his face in a state of shock. Shortly after that meeting was over, my boss asked me where was all of “that”, before I quit. I had an answer, but I didn’t answer because I knew exactly where it was. It was filed in the “things not to do at work so people don’t think you’re too aggressive/an angry black woman” folder. That’s where I was told to keep “that” sass, “that” tone, “that” directness, “that” fire, “that” real me-ness. It was tucked away in a place I could only access in the privacy of my home. But this time it worked and I felt something I hadn’t yet felt in my career. I felt empowered, because I was my most honest self. No one could say they were confused because everyone in that room was clear on how I felt and what my expectations were. It was freeing and I couldn’t wait to do it again.
The third time I authentically spoke my mind, I had a little bit more on the line. But at this point, I didn’t care. I had given up on the idea that advertising was for me, and I was living in a world where I was ok with being fired for what I said, as long as what I said was true to me, because unemployment covers the rent (#thatpart). I had also just had my first kidney stone attack, and my ex moved out of my apartment. I was feeling things, and trust me they weren’t warm and mushy.
So here I was again in a meeting, with my boss, her boss and their boss. Seriously, It was the CEO of my company, the head of strategy and account services, my boss, my creative team and myself. All in one room ki-ki’ing it up. The CEO began to express his discontent with the type of work my team was working on for one of our accounts and he vowed to help us get “sexier work”. However he caveated this with the importance of doing the dirty dishes before you can eat the big meal. I basically took this as, a "y’all are wack but imma help you be not so wack" speech. As far as I’m concerned, I am the least wack person I know. So here we go again— my chest got tight, my stomach became nauseous, my ears got hot, my eyes started to tear up and my eyebrows furrowed as my mouth started moving rapidly. Of course this time my words came from a place of self-respect, not anger.
I explained to the CEO, in front of my room of colleagues, that I absolutely disagreed with his position on the kind of work my team and I were (literally) busting our asses to crank out. I also expressed that his apology for the kind of work we were getting was unnecessary, as there was nothing to be sorry about. Because while he was concerned with what we were working on, I needed him to understand our project touched the hands of far more people nationwide than any other clients on the agency’s roster at the time. I also wanted him to be clear that our office worked on a brand that was recognized globally, and that having worked with this client was nothing to turn our noses up to, as countless people in the industry would love to work on it opposed to other accounts (yes that was shade and yes it was true). I threw a few more zingers in there because, f**k it, I was just over it all at this point. And guess what happened after my little “speech”… I received applause. I said exactly what was on my mind, and yet again, no one asked me to leave the premises immediately.
What I took from these moments were simple. I am my own best advocate, for better or for worse. Every time I open my mouth I put my career and livelihood on the line, but it’s in my best interest to do so. In this industry, respect is a high stakes game. You have to fight hard to get it. My reality is, If the people I work with don’t like what I have to say, It’s best we don’t work together. If the people I work with are receptive to the conversation, then we’re both in the right place. They feel good and respected, and I feel good and respected, and we all have a chance to be heard.