How to Get Your Employees to Speak Up
Getting candid opinions from your direct reports can be difficult. After all, no one wants to upset the boss. But hearing messages from down the ranks -including input from your company’s customers, feedback on your performance, and information from other departments or units – is critical to your organization’s success. How can you encourage your team members to have honest conversations with you – and to speak up when it’s important?
What the Experts Say Cultivating an open environment is tough because people are wired to be conservative, according to James Detert, a professor at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management who specializes in transparent communication in the workplace. “We have a deep set of defense mechanisms that make us careful around people in authority positions,” he says. “That is why the information you’re getting from people multiple levels below you in the organization is likely to be filtered.” But you need those people to be straight with you. “They are better in touch with customers and stakeholders and they understand problems and possibilities, what works and what doesn’t better than you,” he says.
Getting an early handle on minor issues before they become big problems is the key, according to Joseph Grenny, the coauthor of Crucial Conversations and the cofounder of VitalSmarts, a corporate training company. “You can approximate the effectiveness of the team – or even an entire organization – by measuring the average lag time between when problems are identified and when problems are brought out in the open,” he says. Here’s how to minimize the gap.
Zero in on the source of the silence “Silence usually means people are holding back,” says Grenny. Whether people are clamming up in meetings or avoiding questions behind closed doors, it’s up to you to understand why. Are they worried that if they speak up about a problem, they will lose out on a bonus? Or do they think it’s futile since other suggestions haven’t been implemented? To encourage openness in a group setting or in a one-on-one conversation, Grenny suggests “coming up with a code word that jars people into knowing they can be candid with you.” In his corporate training work, Grenny advises managers to use the phrase: “crucial conversation.” The phrase helps “frame the issue so that your team knows they have permission to be honest and open,” he explains.
Give people options You may want everyone on your team to feel free to discuss issues publicly but speaking up about problems in a group setting is uncomfortable for many people. Some might feel put on the spot; others worry they’ll say something unpopular. Initiate more one-on-one, casual conversations so that your people have more ways to express their views. An open door policy is important, says Detert, but “stop waiting for people to come to you – go out and ask them yourself.” Begin with your team’s opinion leaders, advises Grenny. “Every smart manager knows who the opinion leaders are,” he says. “Take them out to lunch individually and ask for feedback,” he says. Pay close attention to the gaps between the issues they raise with you in a “safe, informal environment” versus the “issues that are discussed in team meetings,” Grenny says. “Those are things that really may be bothering your team.”
Model candor In every organization, there are things you just don’t do – disagree with the big boss in public, for instance, or criticize a certain manager’s pet project. But cultivating a climate of candor requires a “willingness to kill the sacred cows,” says Grenny. Are there certain topics that you don’t dare broach with your own manager? If so, you need to speak up -and make sure your team knows you have done so. “You lose moral credibility with your team if you’re not taking risks with your boss,” he adds. Your willingness to run issues up the food chain will make employees more apt to come to you in the first place. “People will realize that if they’re willing to stick their neck out and tell you what’s bothering them, you will try to get something done,” says Detert.
Create an ownership culture When it comes to speaking up, some employees think: “Why bother? It’s not as though my perspective matters.” This line of thinking, according to Detert, is dangerous “and is exactly why you need to create an ownership mentality in everybody on your team.” Colleagues need to feel they have a stake in the success (or lack thereof) in the organization and that speaking up, admitting mistakes, “and addressing concerns is a collective responsibility.” This goes for you, the manager, as well. To embed this notion, Detert suggests offering regular updates on the financial picture of the organization to deepen their understanding of what’s working and what’s not – including examples of your own errors in judgement. “You want to make sure everyone’s motivation to improve the place is sufficiently high.”
Make it routine You can get people in the habit of speaking up. In one-on-one meetings, set aside a few minutes at the end to ask if there are any issues you should be aware of. Dedicate part of the agenda in your regular team meetings to air out problems. Before each meeting, appoint someone whose job it is “to bring up any issues and concerns” and then “rotate that messenger role throughout the team” over the course of time, says Detert. “It’s a good way to show that this process of putting things on the table is everybody’s job. And everybody does it without consequence,” he adds. “It creates a safe zone.” Another approach is to schedule certain meetings with the express purpose of bringing up problems. “Tell your team you want to hear everything that’s wrong with Project X,” says Grenny. “Then build consensus around those to help you figure out: How do we deal with these challenges together?”
Try to get to the source of your colleagues’ concerns about speaking up: what precisely are they afraid of? Initiate one-on-one, informal conversations, which will help team members feel safer about broaching uncomfortable topics Create a culture where colleagues feel they have a stake in the future of the company and that speaking up about issues is everyone’s job
Allow your organization’s cultural norms of “what not to say” get the best of you – be willing to speak the unspeakable Be a hypocrite. If you’re not bringing up tough topics with your manager, you can’t expect the same of your team Let your team get out of the habit of speaking up; before each group meeting, appoint someone whose job it is to bring up issues and concerns
Case study #1 Build trust by communicating with colleagues one-on-one About two years ago, Josh Green, the co-founder and CEO of Panjiva – which helps companies source manufacturers around the world – sensed turmoil on his team. “Things clearly weren’t working and morale was low,” he says. “Low morale is, in my experience, usually a precursor to bigger problems.”
Josh suspected that people were upset because of a decision he had made some months earlier to restructure the team. But during team meetings, colleagues were reticent. “I wasn’t getting the whole story,” he says. “I needed to talk with people one-on-one.”
He sought out three colleagues – people he’d worked with in the past and whose judgments he trusted, and met with them individually for a drink after work. He chose a site away from the office so they would feel more relaxed. “I said: ‘Put yourself in my shoes and describe what you would do if you were me,'” he recalls. “It was a challenge getting them to be candid because they weren’t sure I wanted to hear what they had to say.”
Once his colleagues felt confident that he was “genuinely looking for an honest assessment,” they were more forthcoming. His hunch was right: his team was unhappy with the restructuring. They presumed he wasn’t interested in their opinions because he had brushed off complaints and defended the decision for months.
“One-on-one conversations are vitally important,” Josh concluded. Based on the input from his team, he decided to reverse his decision. Morale improved immediately as did performance.
Case study #2: Be vulnerable with your team and colleagues will follow your lead Megha Desai – founder and CEO of MSD, the New York City-based branding strategy firm focused on social entrepreneurism – wants to cultivate an office environment in which “every person is-and feels – responsible” for the success of the business.
Megha shares all of the company’s financial information with her team, and provides them with weekly status updates on client revenue. Letting employees in on this level of detail has a positive effect on their willingness to be honest and upfront with her when issues arise. “I empower them so that they realize the need to step up and speak up,” she says.
But occasionally, there are bumps in the road. Earlier this year, for instance, she commissioned one of her team members to develop an internal website. “About halfway through the project, I could see that my colleague had reservations about the person (?) she had brought on board to design it. I chose not to say anything and it ended up being a teachable moment for me.”
By July, the site was woefully behind schedule and the design was awful. Megha asked her colleague: Why didn’t you speak up sooner about this problem? “She told me she was nervous to admit she had made a mistake. She said: ‘I thought it would look bad if I showed you self-doubt.'”
The lesson for Megha was that she needed to be more honest and open with her team about her own mistakes. “The notion that founders and leaders are infallible is false,” she says. “I make mistakes all the time – and when I do, now I share them with my team.”
Harvard Business Review
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