As a leadership coach, there are a few questions I am asked consistently by HR professionals and executives, one of which is: Why don't people speak up more?
A senior human resource executive in a very large company recently told me that people often say they hesitate to speak up because they fear retribution. She was especially confused by this because in her 20 years with the company she had never seen disciplinary action taken or known of someone to be fired because they spoke up. In fact, she knew that people willing to speak up were actually more likely to get promoted. The disconnect between what employees believed and the reality was understandably frustrating for her.
It's a troubling tale but, unfortunately, not an unfamiliar one.
What's preventing employees from speaking up?
Whenever there is a consistent pattern across an organization it is a safe bet that an underlying factor is the culture. In this case, there was a strong value placed on politeness. Many interpreted speaking up as questioning or challenging someone publicly, which was not only considered impolite, but also disrespectful. There was a belief that these kinds of conversations shouldn't be happening, and if they did they should be held behind closed doors.
Cultural norms like these are powerful forces that can unintentionally keep constructive conversation in the shadows and encourage people to stay quiet instead of speaking up. Yet as a leader, you can create the conditions that will empower people to speak up when it matters most - despite the pull of a culture that encourages silence.
The two things people need to believe in order to speak their mind
The first thing your people need to know is that you welcome diverse opinions and perspectives. Assure employees that you are open, ready and willing to hear bad news.
The second thing your people need to know is that they can trust you to believe in them and their commitment to you and the future. They need to believe that trust is rock-solid, especially when their feedback is negative or challenges you or the status quo in some way.
Of course, this might seem easier said than done. So here are 5 steps you can take to develop more confident communicators.
1. Practice being comfortable with hearing dissenting views, constructive criticism and bad news
For most this does not come naturally! You can start by paying attention to how you react when people share something that is anything other than predictable or positive. Notice how your reactions affect people's behavior. Keep in mind that when you are the boss or have power over people, they will be hypersensitive to your reactions because they are trying to make you happy. Your job is to convince them you'll be happiest when they speak up and tell you what they really think.
2. Consistently invite dissenting views and constructive criticism
If people only seem to be telling you what they think you want to hear, try designing a conversation for the explicit purpose of getting critical feedback on an important topic. Prepare by crafting questions that directly address an issue, as well as follow-up questions. Also, make sure you go in wide awake to your personal hot buttons and concerns so you don't unwittingly shut the conversation down.
3. Publicly acknowledge people who challenge your thinking, ask tough questions or have the courage to deliver difficult feedback
Be specific in your acknowledgement by sharing how the person's willingness to speak up contributed to your thinking, altered your perspective or informed a decision you made.
4. Practice speaking up more with those who have power over you - your boss, the CEO, a client, etc.
It can be humbling to consider that you may also be holding back from speaking up with those in positions senior to you. If you discover you are holding back, even just a little, notice what is holding you back and use that awareness to be more effective in nurturing confident communication in others. If this is not the case, observe what it is that makes you feel free to speak up so you can nurture your team in becoming more confident communicators.
5. Own your reactions to feedback that is hard for you to hear.
If someone's feedback made you uncomfortable, chances are they felt your discomfort. People actually appreciate it when leaders acknowledge their humanity.
You don't have to bare your soul, but it makes a huge difference if you can demonstrate awareness and honesty when you get defensive or uncomfortable. In fact, owning your reaction helps ensure your employees don't interpret it as their fault or that they did something wrong. This is necessary if you want to keep the lines of communication open.
Putting it into practice
Ultimately, if people do not feel free to speak openly with you, you will never know what is really on their minds. This can be both a risk to your leadership effectiveness, as well as an impediment to the growth of your people. Practice these 5 steps and you will be surprised by how much you learn, including how committed, courageous and wise those you lead can be.