5 Tips for Creating a “Speak Up” Culture
Phil is the president of a mid-size company that has a huge safety problem. If you were to tell him this, Phil would scoff and proudly show you his company’s OSHA records. It’s true that Phil’s company does a great job protecting the physical safety of his workers. However, it’s an entirely different type of “safety” that’s lacking, and it’s being driven by Phil’s own actions, even though he doesn’t realize it.
Like many leaders, Phil is constantly on the lookout for ways to improve his company— possible new products, ideas for process improvement and innovative ways to engage his workforce. In fact, Phil likes new ideas a little too much. New ideas represent possibility to Phil and he eagerly listens to anything that may have the promise of bringing in business for the company. When he hears an idea he likes, he immediately dispatches a team to start looking into how to implement it.
There’s a problem with these ideas— most of them aren’t aligned to the company’s core abilities. People end up chasing “opportunities” that stall because the company can’t physically produce the product at a profitable price. Or, there are unforeseen regulations that prohibit manufacture. Or, the partnership with what initially seemed to be a solid ally has turned sour. And so on.
Phil’s staff has started to call his pet projects Phil’s Follies and people dread being assigned to them. They feel that Phil’s tendency to be on the hunt for the Next Big Thing has turned into a propensity for being drawn to bright, shiny objects and nothing more.
You may be wondering, “Why doesn’t anybody speak up?” They have. And they’ve paid dearly for it. Retribution has taken many forms. People daring to suggest that the idea may not be workable have alternately received a steely-eye glare, an angry diatribe, or an intractable, overly positive, “This is a GREAT idea. Make it happen.”
The employees at Phil’s company have decided that speaking up doesn’t pay. So they stay silent. They’ve learned that it’s not safe to voice concerns, so they plod along, trying to turn half-baked ideas into productive business ventures. Hence, the “safety” problem: employees don’t feel they can safely speak up so they take path of least resistance and keep their mouths shut.
According to the consulting firm Vital Smarts, this is an all-too-common phenomenon. Vital Smarts has conducted research that reveals that silence of this nature leads to a project failure rate of 85%. Unfortunately, Phil’s company has fallen prey to the failings of silence.
Keeping employees interpersonally safe is just as important as creating a physically safe workplace. When leaders behave in ways that make it “unsafe” to speak up, they create all sorts of communication roadblocks that lead to poor decision-making and ultimately, failed projects.
The challenge with figuring out the meaning of silence is that it’s, well . . . quiet. There’s not a lot of feedback to help direct one’s behavior. So, how’s an effective leader to know if he or she is unknowingly making it difficult for the team to speak up?
- Don’t mistake silence for agreement. When you pitch ideas to people, look closely at their body language. Are they “open” to your idea, making eye contact and sitting slightly forward, or are they “closed”, looking away, doodling, or otherwise not connecting with you?
- Learn to ask, “What am I missing?” This simple open-ended phrase will help begin a conversation and shows that you’re open to the notion that your idea may not be fully drawn.
- Reward differing viewpoints. If someone offers a differing view, begin with, “I hadn’t thought of it that way . . .” Ask follow up questions such as, “Have you considered. . .” and “What has to happen in order for you to get you comfortable with this idea?”
- Reflect on past interactions. If your team is normally forthright and now they’ve clammed up, something about the situation has changed. Reflect on how this current “silent” situation is different from times past. Is there a new dynamic that that’s causing the silence?
- Ask for feedback. The best way to get people to open up is to ask for, and then neutrally listen to their feedback. If this is new for you, then you may need to ask several times before people will step up. Be sure to sincerely thank the first person who ventures feedback—even if it’s misguided, poorly worded, or completely irrelevant. You want to reward the act of speaking up. Later, you can work on coaching people to give constructive feedback.
Leaders who operate in a Zone of Silence are not getting the benefit of their employees’ expertise. By following these five tips, leaders will create a culture where people speak up, not clam up. And that will lead to safety in all aspects of the organization— both physical and interpersonal.