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Why Employees Aren't Telling You the Truth

Feel like you're always the last one to know about problems in the company? You're at least partly to blame.
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"How long has this been going on?" "Why am I only hearing about it now?" If you ever find yourself asking questions like these, there's a reason. You likely--and perhaps unintentionally--are discouraging employees from coming to you with vital information.

"Managers lose a lot of opportunity because they're not aware of their own filters," says Beverly Flaxington, certified professional behavior analyst, author, and business advisor. "It's a frightening observation we make all the time: Critical information does not make it to the top of an organization."

Are you guilty of any of these behaviors?

1. One-way communicating

Business leaders will spend a lot of time carefully crafting a memo to the company or preparing a presentation for a company-wide meeting, Flaxington says. "But they're not allowing for interaction or feedback from employees. I've had bosses tell me that it takes too much time. They're willing to spend the time to write the memo, but not the time to make sure they have engagement and understanding."

It's an especially poor approach, she adds, because research shows most adults learn material much better in an interactive process than by just reading it. Worse, by making communication a one-way street, you miss a chance for employees to tell you about an opportunity or problem.

2. Demanding solutions

"Don't just come to me with a problem--tell me how you're going to solve it." If that's your management approach you're taking a big risk because employees will only tell you about the problems they've already figured out. You'll never know about the ones they can't solve, which likely will be the biggest threats to your company.

"The employee may have important information and is being trained not to bring it forward," Flaxington notes. The result, she says, is something she's often seen in coaching sessions: Bosses learning about a serious and long-standing problem for the first time. "Then they ask, 'Why haven't I heard about this before?!" she says.

3. Letting an employee push your buttons

A lot of business leaders react to the way information is delivered rather than the information itself, Flaxington says. "We all have triggers and things that set us off. Maybe I like a lot of data, and someone comes to me with an idea that isn't fully researched. My trigger will say that it isn't as valuable because it's not delivered the way I like."

Fight that tendency by being aware of what your triggers are. "Ask yourself, 'Am I reacting to what's being delivered to me or to who's delivering it and how?'" she advises. "Most leaders can tell the difference if they're honest with themselves."

Just as important, she says, coach the employee to do things differently next time. "Tell the person, 'I want to understand your idea, and it will be most helpful to me if you present it this way instead.'"

4. Not being curious enough

As a leader, it's important to never stop being curious, Flaxington says. "You don't have to agree with everything employees tell you, but you do need to understand it fully enough to make a good decision. So you have to ask yourself, 'What data am I missing? What don't I understand and what could I learn from this?' If you ask yourself those questions when a team or a person comes to you, or even during conversations in the hall, you'll find yourself listening from a different level."

And that's a skill you need, she says. "This is not about being nice to employees. It's about learning what's happening in your business."

Last updated: May 28, 2013

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, The Geek Gap

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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