Adam Galinsky: What Drives Us To Speak Up?

Apr 7, 2017
Originally published on April 10, 2017 2:30 pm

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Speaking Up.

About Adam Galinsky's TED Talk

Social psychologist Adam Galinsky studies why it's so daunting to speak up — and what can help. He says the most powerful factor that compels us to take that risk is "moral conviction."

About Adam Galinsky

Adam Galinsky is the Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business and the chair of the Management Division at the Columbia Business School.

He has received numerous national and international awards for his research and teaching on leadership, power, negotiations, decision-making, diversity, and ethics. Professor Galinsky is the co-author of Friend & Foe.

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What do you think explains, like, this force inside of us that, you know, like that sometimes compels us to, you know, to speak out?

ADAM GALINSKY: Yeah. I mean, I think it's something that psychologists call moral conviction. We are as human beings moral beings. We believe in principles. We are driven by values.

RAZ: This is Adam Galinsky.

GALINSKY: And that is a very compelling and motivating force for people to want to speak up. It's not just that I have a strong attitude or I believe in something. It's that I really feel that it's morally right, and because of that, that's when people will speak up and do the right thing even when they've objectively analyzed the situation and know I'm going to suffer a lot of punishment and backlash for doing so.

RAZ: Adam's a social psychologist at Columbia Business School, and he's kind of an expert on this stuff.

GALINSKY: I study the dynamics that help determine what are the context in which people feel comfortable speaking up and then, second, the how of speaking up to create the least amount of resistance, the minimal amount of punishment.

RAZ: Adam says besides moral conviction, there are two other motivating factors that compel us to speak up.

GALINSKY: When we feel that we have expertise, when we feel that we have some particular insight or knowledge and when we feel like we have social support and allies - more conviction, plus expertise, plus allies, the combination of those three are really the equation that produces people taking that step forward to speak up.

RAZ: And Adam figured out this equation after interviewing thousands of people on all kinds of issues - big and small. Here's Adam Galinsky on the TED stage.


GALINSKY: I've asked people all over the world about this dilemma of speaking up when they can assert themselves, when they can push their interest, when they can express an opinion, when they can make an ambitious ask.

And the range of stories are varied and diverse, but they also make up a universal tapestry. Can I correct my boss when they make a mistake? Can I confront my co-worker who keeps stepping on my toes? Can I challenge my friend's insensitive joke? Can I tell the person I love the most, my deepest insecurities?

And through this experience, I've come to recognize that each of us have something called a range of acceptable behavior. And this range of acceptable behavior is when we stay within our range we're rewarded, and we step outside that range, we get punished in a variety of ways. We get dismissed or demeaned or even ostracized or we lose that raise or that promotion or that deal.

RAZ: Have you ever been in a situation like that?

GALINSKY: Absolutely. Just as one example I'll give you from way back in 1992, I was a research assistant with a professor at Harvard, and he and his research coordinator were planning their trip to go to London to write a case study of the London Symphony Orchestra. And I jokingly said when should I buy my ticket? And he laughed and the next day said if you want to come to London, you can come. And then that became my first publication that I ever had and really helped my career in a number of different ways.

And so, you know, I spoke up, and I was rewarded for doing that. But sometimes other people will speak up in that exact same situation, and they might have been punished. They might have been seen as who do you think you are, you know, asking for this thing?

RAZ: Yeah.

GALINSKY: And sometimes I have misread situations, and I've spoken up. And you can immediately see that that was the wrong thing to do by everyone's expression and reaction in the room.

RAZ: And Adam says that's what makes speaking up so difficult because your range of acceptable behavior isn't fixed. It changes based on the context of each situation.


GALINSKY: And there's one thing that determines that range more than anything else, and that's your power. When we have lots of power, our range is very wide. We have a lot of leeway in how to behave. But when we lack power or range in the areas, we have very little leeway. And the problem is is that when a range narrows, that produces something called the low power, double bind. And the low power, double bind happens when if we don't speak up, we go unnoticed. But if we do speak up, we get punished.

Now, many of you have heard the phrase the double bind and connected it with one thing, and that's gender. Women who don't speak up go unnoticed and women who do speak up get punished. Oftentimes, you see reaching a man and a woman or men and women and we think biological 'cause there's something fundamentally different about the sexes. But in study after study, I found that a better explanation for many sex differences is really power. What my research has shown over the last two decades is that it's not really a gender double bind. It's really a low power, double bind. And what looks like a gender difference are really often just power differences in disguise.

And this isn't just true for women. It's true for minorities. In fact, there is an old phrase for, you know, an African-American to speak up being uppity. Right? That represents this double bind. Lower social class people aren't allowed to be - speak up without getting punished, low power people in organizations. And so that happens in any situation in society when a group or an individual doesn't have as much power. They have a narrower range of acceptable behavior. They have little leeway in how they can behave. When I have power, I have a wide range of acceptable behavior. I have a lot of leeway. And so part of what I do in my research is help people with low power - how do you expand that range and give yourself a little bit more leeway?

RAZ: Yeah. How do you do it?

GALINSKY: So in one of the great examples of overcoming the gender double bind is that women don't get punished in negotiations, and they feel more comfortable negotiating fiercely when they're negotiating on behalf of another person. This is called the mama bear effect, right? Psychological distance matters a tremendous amount. We always get constrained by our own fears and anxieties and perspective, and we need help from other people to see the larger picture.

And so speaking up on behalf of others both makes me feel more comfortable because I have a little psychological distance, but I'm also less likely to get punished 'cause people don't see me as self-interested, but they see me as actually being, you know, pro-social and other-oriented. And so I think this really solves both problems - my psychological level of confidence and anxiety and other people's tendency to accept my behavior versus punishment and backlash.


RAZ: And Adam says another way to expand your range is to show you understand the needs of the people you're trying to convince. And that tactic has been effective from asking for raises to asking for equality.

GALINSKY: You know, when we think about Martin Luther King, he had incredible capacity to take the perspective of other people. And so I think when you look and you see some comparisons to him and some of the other voices from the 1960s that were a little bit more forceful than him, he understood that to get people on board he needed to use a language of morality and justice. And he needed to do it in a way that was least threatening to the power structures that be. And so the nonviolent protest is sort of part of that.

But, you know, just take his famous quote - right? - which is that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." That's telling people that we're going to get to a just place in the world, but it's going to take time. It's going to take effort. And we have to work together to do that. And so I think he understood for me to have an influence for me to have an impact, I have to get outside the defense mechanisms of other people who are going to see any expression of equality as a threat.

RAZ: OK. So Martin Luther King Jr. clearly an exceptional case. But when it comes to you and me trying to do this in our everyday lives, there's a small problem.


GALINSKY: Perspective taking is hard to do. So let's do a little experiment. I want you all to hold your finger, put it up. And I want you to draw a capital letter E on your forehead as quickly as possible. OK. It turns out that we can draw this E in one of two ways. And this was originally designed as a test of perspective taking.

I'm going to show you two pictures. And you can see over here, that's the correct E. I drew with the E so it looks like an E to another person. That's the perspective-taking E because it looks like an E from someone else's vantage point. But this over here is the self-focused E. And we often get so focused.


GALINSKY: In just a moment, Adam Galinsky explains why it's important to not be self focused when speaking up and why that can actually save your life. Today on the show, Ideas About Speaking Up. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Stories And Ideas About Speaking Up. And for social psychologist Adam Galinsky, who we were just hearing from, the decision of when and how to speak up is all about context - even in a crisis. Here's Adam on the TED stage.


GALINSKY: I want to tell you about a particular crisis. A man walks into a bank in Watsonville, Calif. And he says, give me $2,000 or I'm blowing the whole bank up with a bomb. Now, the bank manager didn't give him the money. She took a step back. She took his perspective. And she noticed something really important. He asked for a specific amount of money. So she said why did you ask for $2,000? And he said, my friend's going to be evicted unless I get him $2,000 immediately. And she said, oh, you don't want to rob the bank. You want to take out a loan.


GALINSKY: Why don't you come back to my office and we can have you fill out the paperwork?


GALINSKY: Now, her quick perspective taking diffused a volatile situation.


RAZ: Wow, I mean, in one sense, this woman was able to think quickly in a crisis. But in another sense, I mean, she must have had a lot of courage to even speak up.

GALINSKY: Yes. Speaking up effectively doesn't necessarily require courage because if you've analyzed the situation correctly and taken steps to present the information in a way that's most digestible to other people, you have lowered the risk of speaking up. Which means courage is a less important ingredient in that. What we think of as courage is when I've analyzed a situation, I know there's cost for speaking up, and I'm willing to do so anyway. That's what courage is.

And so courage is certainly a part of this. What I try to do is I try to get people to the point where they don't need as much courage because they've understood the situation and they've been able to speak up with the least resistance possible.

RAZ: And it seems like a lot of it has to do with just finding the right balance, right?

GALINSKY: It's exactly right, you know, finding the right balance between, you know, speaking up successfully and getting punished or not speaking up. When we lack power, there's a burden that's placed on us. And we can fight against that burden defiantly. And sometimes that's the appropriate thing to do. But we can also fight against that burden by finding, you know, which path down the stream to go so I don't crash into the rocks.

We still get down the stream. It's just we have to be a little bit more careful about making sure we get into the middle of that rapid. And so finding those ways to signal less contestation is a powerful way to get what you want without creating resistance and punishment.


RAZ: Adam Galinsky. He teaches at Columbia Business School. He's also the co-author of "Friend & Foe: When To Cooperate, When To Compete, And How To Succeed At Both." You can watch his talk at

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