Open, honest, and candid feedback is a necessity for any leader who wants to lead better and improve his or her company. But that candor is hard to come by. Employees have a lot to lose by opening their mouths and telling you what's really on their minds.
There's also an underlying reason employees are quiet. James Detert, a professor at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management who specializes in transparent workplace communication, tells Harvard Business Review that humans are conservative by nature.
"We have a deep set of defense mechanisms that make us careful around people in authority positions. That is why the information you're getting from people multiple levels below you in the organization is likely to be filtered," he tells HBR.
So how do you get your employees to open up and start talking? Below, find out how to get the unfiltered version of the conversation.
Find out why people are being silent
Joseph Grenny, co-founder of corporate training company VitalSmarts, tells HBR that leaders need to dig into their culture and understand why people aren't talking: "Silence usually means people are holding back," Grenny says. Are employee bonuses based on merit, or do people have evidence that only the company's yes-men get rewarded? Do you take feedback seriously, or do your employees have reason to believe what they say has no impact?
Whatever the reason, find out what's making your employees stay silent and find out how to make them comfortable. Grenny says that in his corporate training sessions, he suggests leaders schedule times for one-on-one meetings where nothing is off limits, and create open group discussions. He also recommends telling managers to implement the phrase "crucial conversation" during meetings, which helps "frame the issue so that your team knows they have permission to be honest and open."
Create opportunities for honesty
It's a twist on a simple protocol that you should already have in place: an open-door policy, with invites. Don't wait for your employees to get inspired to knock on your door--invite them in to one-on-ones, or casually ask them for feedback on tension points you have become aware of during a meeting. Grenny suggests taking your opinion leaders out to lunch individually to solicit feedback. This is when the important issues come out. Grenny says to be alert and identify any gaps that emerge between the issues these opinion leaders raise with you during a "safe, informal environment" and the "issues that are discussed in team meetings." "Those are things that really may be bothering your team," he says.
Get rid of taboo topics
If there are topics, issues, or certain types of feedback you have typically forbidden, you need to change your policy. Talk to your managers and see what they are afraid of broaching with you. Make sure your managers can bring up anything under the sun. "People will realize that if they're willing to stick their neck out and tell you what's bothering them, you will try to get something done," Detert says.
Build a culture of ownership
If your employees don't feel like they have a stake in the company's success, they will not bother to bring up something uncomfortable. If you create a culture of ownership, where people feel like they have an impact and share in success, they will start speaking up, addressing concerns, admitting mistakes, and calling out leadership lapses. Include your employees when it comes to revenue, budget, and financial reports. Make everyone feel like his or her actions impact the bottom line. "You want to make sure everyone's motivation to improve the place is sufficiently high," Detert says.