I talk to a lot of leaders about communicating with their employees. And here's a common complaint: Employees don't participate. "I present important information and ask if anyone has any questions. And they just sit there. Silence. Why don't employees speak up?"

The bad news: It's not them; it's you. Employees have a lot to ask, but they respond to subtle (or not so subtle) cues from leaders about whether participation is really welcome.

The good news: You can encourage employees to become engaged.

Here are 5 suggestions:

  1. Find out why employees don't raise their hands. Ask HR to conduct focus groups or interviews to explore what stops employees from participating. There are likely some common challenges (see below), but there may be some unique factors at work in your organization. Only by understanding the barriers can you address them.
  2. Allow plenty of time. Most town halls and other leader venues are too heavily weighted toward presentations, leaving only a few minutes at the end for Q&A. Once employees start to watch the clock ("only 10 more minutes"), they're discouraged from participating. You need enough time to set up the discussion, facilitate dialogue and build momentum.
  3. Eliminate the spotlight. Even the most extroverted of us find it difficult to raise our hand in front of all our colleagues. So create a way for employees to share their questions or thoughts more quietly. Facilitate a break-out session at tables or in small groups of two or three and ask employees to generate a couple of questions or concerns on cards. Then ask a spokesperson from selected groups to verbally share a thought. Because the ideas were generated in a group, it's safer to speak up.
  4. Instead of calling for questions, pose a question. Even in the most open, supportive culture, it's risky for employees to expose potential ignorance by asking a question. But if the leader poses a question--like "What are the obstacles to achieving this objective?"--employees have the opportunity to participate from a position of strength.
  5. In social media, don't set yourself up as the expert; ask questions instead. When leaders seem to have all the answers, you're modeling a "know-everything" behavior that discourages anyone else to ask questions. But if you make it a practice to ask questions--"What's your experience with this? What are some ideas you have for how we can address this?"--you lead by example.

Want to learn more about increasing employee participation? I'm leading a web workshop on  town halls.  And here's a free  guide.