Many organizational leaders happily discuss their open door policies and how they encourage employees to freely communicate their questions and concerns. While policies and encouragement are important, many employees are still hesitant to open up to their superiors because they're scared of negative repercussions or judgment.

Suzanne Bates, CEO of Bates Communications, witnessed this firsthand when the president of a business unit at a large company received news from an anonymous survey that employees thought he was intimidating.

"His employees had been told that their responses to the survey would be anonymous and had provided candid answers to questions about the leader's strengths and gaps," Bates explained.

The leader was warned not to follow up immediately -- especially while emotional from the feedback.

Bates said, "He went straight into the office of a direct report to ask whether she had provided that feedback, and if not, who had. The employee was shocked, got up, and left the room."

When your team is intimidated, getting them to communicate is a challenging and time-consuming feat.

So, here's how you can get your employees to talk, even when they're scared:

1. Provide an anonymous channel.

When it comes to expressing their concerns, most employees are unsure of the right time, place, and even person to contact.

"It happened to us a few times. Some team members didn't like some aspects of our work culture or office space, but couldn't find the right place or time to bring it up," said Steffen Maier, co-founder and CMO at Impraise.

Maier and the other three founders of Impraise wanted everyone on their team to feel free and safe when speaking up and sharing their concerns or ideas.

"We created a feedback user called Impraise Culture. The user would receive (anonymous or non-anonymous) real-time feedback on our work culture 24/7. It also sends out engagement surveys every month to measure the vibe and improve things needing a bit of extra work," said Maier.

To get your employees talking, provide a tool like Impraise did that allows for both anonymous and non-anonymous feedback. Or have employees write down their comments during monthly meetings. Place each one in a jar, and pull them out one-by-one to have collaborative discussions immediately.

These solutions will increase engagement levels, help leaders solve problems, and allow every type of communicator to express their thoughts.

When encouraging these honest discussions, also keep an eye out for positive anonymous feedback in your inboxes. Then, share with the entire team to boost team morale and let them know they're doing right.

2. Create a safe place.

Sensitive topics, from politics to letting colleagues go to how the organization processes change, can leave employees feeling uncomfortable and unable to open up.

James Keller, executive director of semiotics at Uncorked Studios, believes all of these topics create underlying fears that affect work performance. That's why Uncorked created "semio sessions."

"It's an exercise where we bring together a room full of employees and ask them to share any questions and insights about a specific topic. We begin with time to write questions about the problem. It's followed with time to post stickies and explain them in front of the group," Keller explained.

Uncorked put this method to the test with a discussion about the design of their new workspace. This allowed the team to communicate what was liked and disliked about their current workspaces and their fears or desires surrounding the new space.

Set aside time once a month for your team to write down insights, questions, and concerns. When everyone comes together, allow each person to share with no repercussions or judgment. A collaborative and safe environment can then be formed as everyone discusses the best solutions for their co-workers' concerns.

3. Rethink your goals.

Goals are extremely personal. So when expectations aren't reached, most people feel a sense of personal failure.

During an influx of clients, Michelle Vitus, founder and CEO of Slate Advisers, noticed issues with her client operations team. What caught her attention the most was that a team lead wasn't bringing these concerns to her attention.

Vitus said, "He found part of his job really draining and wasn't able to sustain typical productivity levels when completing those tasks. He felt it was a personal failure, rather than a challenge he could solve jointly with his team."

Vitus resolved the situation by revisiting the team's goals in clear, measurable terms, which are assessed openly on a regular basis.

Use a workforce planning and performance tool like Squadley to help save your team from being overwhelmed into silence. If they do reach this point, sit down and discuss their current goals or expectations. Explain why not reaching them isn't a personal failure, but rather a situation that can be handled by the entire team.

Getting scared employees to talk isn't an easy task. Dedicate a specific portion of each month to understanding what frightens your team and what they need to freely communicate with leaders.

Most importantly, stick to your word. When re-aligning goals or listening to anonymous feedback, it's crucial to make sure your team feels they're in a safe, trustworthy environment.

Published on: Jun 19, 2017
The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of