What happens when you ask, during all-hands meetings, if there are any questions? If you hear crickets, see no hands, and can feel the tension of unsaid issues employees would love to blurt out, it may be time to change your culture.
Innovation--from ideas, to products, to changing a stifling culture--cannot bloom in an environment of fear and command-and-control. Innovation needs a culture of freedom and safety. Your company's culture needs to allow people to be honest, candid, and loose.
Joseph Grenny, a four-time New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance, writes in Harvard Business Review about how to transform a culture of fear to one where employees feel safe to speak their minds and raise issues they previously wouldn't dare to broach.
Grenny writes about how the president of an unidentified (but well-known) defense company managed to successfully transform his company's culture from being suppressing and punishing to candid, open, honest--and effective.
"Employees had decades of data from their own painful experiences that told them taking a risk to raise controversial questions was quickly punished," Grenny writes.
If that sounds like how your employees feel, try these approaches.
Lionize employees publicly.
To get your employees' best ideas, you need to create a safe forum where people feel comfortable enough to ask questions and praise those employees brave enough to pose questions, Grenny writes. Phil, the president of the unnamed tactical aircraft manufacturer, added a ask-me-anything type column in the company's newsletter. "It may sound like small potatoes, but simply adding a column called 'Ask the President' to the weekly internal newsletter was a daring move," Grenny said. Phil wrote each response to the most widely asked and sensitive questions. As the employees saw that the president took the questions and concerns seriously, and found that "disagreement would no longer be treated as insubordination," the more employees started to send in questions with their names attached. Phil would commend those employees and the quiet ones started to speak up. A little praise goes a long way. "Public praise is more about influencing those who hear it than those who receive it," Grenny says.
Rev the engine.
Now once you have made your employees feel safe, it's time to bring the opinion leaders together and push them to bring tougher, more disruptive questions. Grenny says if this group doesn't feel safe enough to broach serious issues, it's time to "prime the pump" by bringing them up yourself. "When people don't feel safe speaking up, leaders can show that it is safe by saying the hard things themselves. By saying the unsayable, and doing so with a tone of voice that suggested respect for this view, Phil created a little more safety," Grenny writes. After your influencers leave such a meeting meeting, the word will spread and employees will be more comfortable asking the hard questions.
Grenny says you should "go beyond encouraging openness" and teach it to your senior team. He suggests to hold hour-long sessions, what he calls "crucial conversations," where you teach the team how to diffuse emotion, speak candidly, and build rapport. "As people acquired these new skills, their confidence in speaking up increased. The fact that Phil personally taught the skills showed how invested he was in having open conversations," he says. it's an approach worth emulating.
Put your ego aside.
The last step may hurt, so make sure your skin is tough enough. If you've surrounded yourself with yes men, you haven't gotten much honest feedback about how you might be unapproachable, stubborn, and unwilling to hear criticism. Ask your employees to break down your personality with you, tell them to explain how you are perceived by your employees, and how you can improve. All you need is "one brave soul," Grenny writes. The most important hting to remember: You're asking for it, so you cannot hold anything against the courageous employee telling you how it is. Embrace the feedback and use it for positive change.