Most leaders claim they give their people permission to push back on things that don't make sense or should be done differently. Yet, far too often, declarations of an "open-door policy," or "permission to be candid," are just seen as "business as usual" by employees.

The "as usual" means they continue to instead stay silent on their opinions and suggestions, allow wrong behaviors and practices to continue, and rarely tell the truth about the way things really happen inside the organization.

Why do employees, associates, and team members routinely withhold valuable intelligence from leaders? Especially the routines that have "checkers checking the checkers" which leads to endless bureaucracy.

No matter how open leaders are in suggesting it's safe to say what people think and feel, research shows that most people are more likely to keep mum rather than challenge a current direction or suggest a better way. It turns out that most people care too much about their well being to speak truth to power. It is the responsibility of leaders to start clearing some of the obstacles out of the way.

Here are six ways leaders can foster a culture that makes it safe to speak up and connect people to each other and the business as a result:

The two big reasons people don't speak up and what to do

An issue of HBR reveals some research by Detert and Burris which shows that leader efforts to encourage their people to speak up fail for two reasons: because of people's fear of consequences, and a sense of futility. To address these two, they suggest leaders model challenging the status quo and be transparent on the feedback process.

1. Regulate emotions.

When someone feels threatened, they most likely stop listening. But when a leader makes him or herself vulnerable and allows people to give open honest feedback, it is not an indictment on their leadership but rather one of the healthiest acts of a strong leader. One client leader recently suggested that getting all the truths on the table was wasting time by creating a public complaint session. I suggested that if this wasn't the best conversation his senior team ever had, we would give him his money back. It started out a little rocky but the CEO held his emotions in check and didn't take anything personally. By the time the meeting was over, the sentiment was that the CEO's willingness to be publicly vulnerable opened the door to some of the greatest conversations the team ever had together.

2. Stop misguided efforts to promote candor.

Climate surveys, organizational heath surveys, anonymous feedback activities, and all staff feedback sessions. Open door invitations and surveys like these are too passive. They often suggest that leaders are just going through the motions when what leaders really need is to be curious about where we most need to challenge the status quo, and employees are the best source to help figure that out.

3. Get people to own the truth.

Getting people to hear the truth is hard, getting them to own it can be impossible, unless everyone acknowledges they have contributed in some way to the truth that everyone wants to change. When the entire team is vulnerable, it is much easier to collectively and individually be accountable to the needed change.

4. Embrace constructive conflict.

One of the best ways to embrace constructive conflict is for everyone on the team, including the leader, to identify the top three areas of dissatisfaction and explain why these are holding the team or the organization back. Then devise a plan together to address the difficult issues head on.

5. Dialogue is the only answer.

The only possible way to engage people on the issues of truth and candor is through dialogue. Dialogue has the power of enabling any group to lower their defenses and to be open to welcome the truths holding them back.

Try beginning with these two questions:

  • What are we dissatisfied with, slow to recognize, create excuses for, and/or don't tell ourselves the truth about?
  • How has each of us contributed to allowing these issues to continue and what can we do to change them?

What are some of your best tips for getting your people to speak openly?

Published on: Aug 24, 2017
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