You are a good leader. You feel like you’ve done your best to develop the relationships that will make your employees feel safe in speaking their truth. Imagine you are in a room for a team meeting to have a tough discussion about their performance, behavior, or a project that’s going south. You ask for their thoughts on the situation. Crickets. Silence. The eyes in the room are focused everywhere but at you.
You’re disappointed. Like many leaders, until today you believed your team members have told you everything you need to know. The truth is that in our hierarchical organizations your employees will not speak their minds completely – ever. Leaders who are in a position of managerial power must work particularly hard at getting to the bottom of things.
This takes some work on your part. It requires you to be deliberate about creating safety for important dialog to occur. Without that, you won’t hear what is important to them and your organization. So what do you need to change in order for you to hear what others think?
Consider the following:
Understand how you might react to the hard truth
Knowing your own motivation for hearing things that others aren’t willing to talk about is a great way to start. Do you really want to hear the truth or would you rather just confirm what you already know or believe? If it’s the latter, you run the risk of sabotaging any honesty you hear from them.
Listen for understanding
You can’t hear honest ideas and opinions if you’re talking and spouting your opinions. In fact, chances are that you’ll shut down the conversation completely by using these tactics. Open up and listen better than you ever have to understand their point of view.
Open ended questions that delve deeply into the topic being discussed will show that you are listening and interested in what is being said. It doesn’t mean that you agree, so watch your body language and stay nonjudgmental as others speak their truth.
Acknowledge the answers
When others are willing to talk about what’s important to them, acknowledge them. This kind of honesty doesn’t happen often, and people feel like they are putting themselves on the line for you and the organization. For goodness sake, the right thing to do is to say, “thank you for being honest.”
Realize that you can’t fix everything right away
You must be willing to do something about what you’ve heard, or at least tell them why you can’t. If you don’t, people won’t take the risk to speak up again. You can always let them know you are thinking about their ideas and let them know what you decide to do – or not – later. But DO get back to them and let them know why you decided as you did.
Ensure that there aren’t negative consequences to what you heard
Revealing confidences inappropriately or chastising the individuals who spoke up will also prevent them from speaking up again later. They need to trust that these things won’t happen in order for you to count on them to speak up later. Continually show that you are glad they told you what they did.
It isn’t easy for employees to speak up about things they might feel uncomfortable about. You can encourage them by exhibiting the behaviors above that are open and trustworthy.
More From Mary Jo Asmus
Mary Jo Asmus is an executive/leadership coach whose work spans decades of making a difference in the lives of hundreds of executives, leaders and teams in Fortune 500, mid- and small-sized business, governments and nonprofits. She focuses on facilitating individuals and teams from first-line supervisor to the C-suite to create, develop, and influence the relationships that can make them extraordinary.