What If People Aren’t Telling You Hard Things You Need to Hear?

For all the talk about transparent workplaces and authenticity, it can still be hard to say something you think may not be well received. People stay quiet when they fear speaking up might lead to backlash, cause offense or make them appear incompetent. Others are simply conflict averse, don’t know how to start or have previously seen their input discounted.  
 
But silence does not mean all is well. Sometimes, organizations tout a culture of candor but actually disregard or take punitive measures against those who are seen as “complaining” or not team players. Are you actually creating an environment that encourages people to speak up?
 
While you aren’t looking to stoke a gripe fest, if employees can’t share opinions, concerns and ideas, you are likely missing out on a treasure trove of important information.
 
If you can’t say something nice . . .
It can be tempting to “blame” people who are reluctant to speak up and label them as shy or introverted. We might even assume they simply lack the disposition (courage, vision, leadership ability) to speak up and make their views known. Research does show that employees with a low “approach orientation” are less likely than those with a high “approach orientation” to make themselves heard, especially if it involves a degree of risk.
 
But management researchers from Duke University and the University of Maryland have found that the situation may play a bigger role than personality in determining whether someone shares their candid thoughts. They surveyed almost 300 employees at a manufacturing plant in Malaysia and found that whether input was encouraged or discouraged could override a team member’s natural tendency to speak up or remain silent.
 
“Even if someone had a low approach orientation, they spoke up when they thought it was strongly expected of them at work,” they wrote in Harvard Business Review.  “And if someone had a high approach orientation, they’d be less likely to speak up with concerns when they thought it was discouraged or punished.”
 
Make it safe to talk
Encouraging and rewarding speaking up can help all team members do it, despite natural personality tendencies. The researchers also found that the environment influenced what employees spoke up about. If leaders emphasized identifying areas for improvement or pointing out possible threats that could impact safety or smooth operations, employees were most likely to speak up on those issues.
 
When leaders emphasized sharing input on new ways to approach the work or innovative solutions, employees were more likely to share their thoughts on those issues. This suggests that, based on the needs of your particular workplace, or even your priorities as a leader, you can encourage the kind of input you most value.
 
If reliability and avoiding mistakes is most critical, employees should be encouraged and rewarded for identifying potential threats and pointing out ways to minimize disruptions. If what you really need is innovation, make it clear that you’re open to new ideas and have a tolerance for risk-taking and the potential for failure that comes with trying something new.
 
Of course, cultural norms can play a role as well. How willing people are to speak up as individuals can depend on the country you’re operating in, regional differences within a country or someone’s own ethnic and cultural background.
 
Help people make the leap
To encourage more input, consider these ideas for creating a culture that clearly values open, candid sharing of feedback.
 
  1. Model the behavior yourself. You might share something you need help with or outline an approach you’ve been using that you think could be improved and ask for input. If team members see that you can engage in a candid review of what’s working well and what isn’t they will likely feel more comfortable raising concerns.
 
  1. Ask specifically for what you want. It’s amazing how powerful it can be to state clearly what you are looking for so people don’t have to guess. Team members may not be accustomed to working in an environment that values candid input. Let them know what kind of feedback you would find most helpful.  
 
  1. Start small. You don’t have to open the flood gates on day one. Help people practice on a more narrowly defined project rather than the whole department or company. For example, you might focus on improving how orders are processed and encourage colleagues to weigh in about what’s working, what’s not, and ideas for improvement.
 
  1. Notice the quiet ones. Some people are more comfortable speaking up, have louder voices or enjoy new challenges. You won’t have any trouble noticing them or hearing their ideas. Folks who tend to hold back or express themselves more quietly (often women and people of color) may need to be drawn out more. Consider going to them privately to see what’s on their mind and then encourage them to share those same thoughts in the larger group. Avoid putting them on the spot or making fun of them for being quiet; they need encouragement, not derision.
 
  1. Ask questions and listen. Sometimes, others aren’t talking because we are talking too much. If you ask open-ended questions and then really listen to what bubbles up, you may get insights you had not even anticipated.
 
  1. Keep trying. It may take a while for people to get comfortable sharing their honest thoughts if they’ve been accustomed to a more top-down culture. They may even need to see some evidence that it’s worth the effort. If you can point to improvements made or crises averted due to employee input, people will be more excited to chime in.
 
When team members share candid insights, it can reduce frustration and boost group performance as you tackle previously hidden or unaddressed issues.

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