How to Stand Up for Yourself and Others

June 29, 2020

How to Stand Up for Yourself and Others

Whether as an ally or a minority, many of us are feeling more empowered than ever to stand up to injustice big or small, but it can still be intimidating to take action. 

What you're feeling these days is the power to influence your work environment, and when you take control of that power, you are an “upstander.”

An upstander, or ally, or is someone who speaks up and holds their coworkers accountable for bad behavior. 

Compare this to being a bystander—someone who witnesses ugly behavior and doesn’t step in or speak up. While bystanders may think that they're not active participants when they witness incivility, discrimination, harassment or bullying, they are. Their silence loudly condones the behavior and perpetuates a negative work culture. 

Speaking up can be scary and it definitely takes courage. But when you make the choice to step in, it stops bad behavior in its tracks and changes the trajectory of your organization’s culture. It might even change the trajectory of your fellow employees’ lives. 

To help you gain the confidence to be an upstander, I’ve compiled advice from my recent course, Bystander Training: From Bystander to Upstander. When fellow employees are being bullied or harassed, or are met with exclusivity in any way, here are ways you can speak up.

Learn more in the course "Bystander Training: From Bystander to Upstander."

What behavior should I stand up against?

If you're not sure when you should be taking action as an ally, let me be clear that you should feel empowered to stand up against any behavior that makes you uncomfortable or feels inappropriate; that causes others to feel less valued, hurt, or abused. Some examples of this include:

  • Incivility and unprofessionalism—subtle behaviors like interrupting, talking over people, sarcasm, or discounting a person's ideas which leave people feeling like they’re not valued.

  • Harassment and bullying—intimidating, hostile, or abusive words or actions.

  • Discrimination—leaving people out or treating them unfairly due to their membership of a particular group or protected class, like someone being left out of a project due to their sexual orientation, race, or disability. 

How do I speak up? 

You may feel intimidated to speak up when you witness toxic behavior. The good news is that with practice, it will become second nature.

Here are six strategies to help you build the communication skills and confidence to stand up for yourselves and colleagues and hopefully educate someone about why their actions may be unintentionally hurtful.

  1. Express the impact. By focusing on the impact, you can show the individual how their actions affect others. For instance, instead of saying “Rolling your eyes is rude,” you might say “Rolling your eyes when someone speaks in a meeting is hurtful.”
  2. Focus on values. Lean on the core values of the company to hold people accountable, such as saying “When you speak to Jessica that way, it goes against our core value of respect. That language does not work here.” If your company doesn't have (or practice) core values, you can speak to personal values, such as “We all value feeling respected by people we work with, and that language really violates that.” 

  3. Ask questions. You can call attention to certain behavior by asking a question, like “Jackson, did you realize you just interrupted me? What I was going to say was…” The more you stand up for yourself or others, the more likely you are to break the other person’s habit. 

  4. Paraphrase. When someone uses hurtful language, you can “take the sting” out by paraphrasing the ugly statement with a more positive tone, then asking a question: “Okay, so you don't like the report. Can you tell Joe exactly what you're looking for?”

  5. Be direct. When you’re direct, you’re more honest and authentic. It demonstrates integrity and shows respect for others. To change the course of a negative interaction, keep your response brief and simple, use “I” statements, and focus on the behavior, not the person. It can be as simple as “I think that was a pretty offensive thing to say.” 

  6. State your needs. State the problem with the behavior and what you need from future interactions. Instead of “Please don't speak to me like that,” you could say “When you speak to me like that, it makes it hard to take your advice. In the future, I need you to explain things to me in a way that is more of a teachable moment.”

When should I speak up—now or later?

One of the most pressing questions I get is when to use upstander tactics. If the goal is to create an upstander culture, then speaking up in the moment, in front of others is the best choice.

If you don’t say anything in the moment, you communicate that you tolerate the behavior. Yes, you could talk to the person later, but the profound impact could be lost for the individual as well as the group. Plus, there is power in numbers. If you speak up in a meeting, it's more likely that others will, too.

On the flip side, if you’re a manager trying to help a subordinate change their behavior, or there’s a client in the meeting, it’s better to call the person out in private. 

Lastly, some people think you should get permission from the recipient before you step in. After all, this is between them, right? 


If you're witnessing the behavior, you're involved whether you want to be or not and I encourage you to speak up and take action. 

If you’re interested in exploring this more, please check out my latest course Bystander Training: From Bystander to Upstander, which will help you develop the skills you need to speak up and learn how to build an upstander culture that holds employees and peers to professional conduct.