Why Employees Don't Speak Up | AboutLeaders.com
Article by Dr. Mary Kay
December 8, 2015

Speak Up

I’ve noticed that people say, “The number one factor to (fill in the blank) is TRUST.” Really? If trust is so important why do people not eagerly study and learn everything about trust and then make it happen?

I’ve actually documented those articles that have been written about “trust” or “being trustworthy” are not as popular as other leadership topics. Why?

Road Block to Trust

One common barrier is simply the word “trust.” In many organizations, it’s so overused that team members don’t seem to know what it means. What’s worse, they often do not see trust in action. For example, just yesterday an individual told me they finally gained the courage to speak up and were shot down by others. So much for trust being #1!

Ironically, although trust is one of the most common core values that companies aspire to, if you walked into any given workplace, you would rarely see managers discussing the importance of trust with their employees.

Instead, you’re more likely to hear discussions related to productivity topics and later behind closed doors statements like, “I don’t know if I trust him to do that,” or “I’ve got to follow up and check on them to see if they follow through.”


When this is the general atmosphere in the workplace, the results can be disastrous. Productivity will undoubtedly suffer, and what will be left for the manager to do is keep tabs on his or her employees—in essence, to baby-sit instead of building teams that run the business.

Time to Self-Reflect


The lacking of witnessing trust in action can become a vicious cycle if managers are not careful and that is often how an “us” and “them” environment takes hold. But there is a way to get out of the reactionary loop and build a foundation of trust. Take a minute and ask yourself these questions: Do my word and actions inspire others to trust me? Be honest.

Would others say I am good at:

  • Listening?
  • Accepting responsibility?
  • Practicing confidentiality?
  • Mutually supporting everyone in the organization?

The following are tips on how to increase 4 specific behaviors that build trust between you and others. Think through how to implement each action with a person that you might not be getting results with.

Listen, Listen, and Listen

Start having a two-way conversation today with a difficult person and see what kind of response you receive—all you have to do is really work on listening. Let the person know that you are there for them when they have problems, concerns, or questions. When they do come to you, don’t start doing all the talking. Listen to what they have to say then respond logically rather than emotionally.

This sounds a lot easier than it actually is. When we hear something we disagree with, it’s a natural reaction to elevate our voices and be quick to make our point. However, as leaders, we must instead stay calm, open, and understanding of the other person’s point of view.

We must continue to listen rather than interrupt, shoot the messenger, or try to explain away whatever the problem might be. When team members choose to speak up and talk to you, they are taking a big step toward showing that they trust you; they are helping you to start building that foundation.


Whatever the topic might be, whatever issue they have decided to bring to you, wait for them to finish their thoughts before you say anything, and make sure that your response is not reactionary. Think things through before you talk; you’ll be surprised at how this one small action can turn the tide of any heated conversation.

Accept Responsibility

When we’re feeling under pressure ourselves, it’s easy to try to throw the blame for whatever problems exist onto somebody else. We can complain about people in other departments or locations; it’s better when they’re not around to defend themselves.

Related:  When Leadership Strengths become Weaknesses - Part 2

We can also blame our own team members if we have to—for not following through, not meeting deadlines, not returning phone calls, or not sharing work related information.

Instead of making excuses take ownership of whatever situations arise. When confronted by difficult issues stop and ask: “What can I do to rise above the circumstances?” Take a look at yourself first, review your own actions and habits, and proceed to change whatever necessary to achieve better results.

Often, during this self-examination, leaders find that their first shortcoming is not sharing enough information with others. Perhaps they accidentally held back pertinent details that caused the process to go less smoothly than it otherwise might have. When this happens approach others directly and say, “You know, I think there’s something that I failed to tell you. Maybe that’s why we didn’t get that particular project completed on time.”

This sort of behavior will undoubtedly feel refreshing to team members that are used to reactive communicators who would normally just say, “We constantly have a lack of communication around here. When is it going to get better?”

Practice Confidentiality

Every organization has a rumor mill, whether it wants one or not. Gossip is generated by team members reacting with fear to unfavorable situations. People are generally afraid to go directly to the source of a problem to confirm fact or fiction and decide for themselves what is true. Lacking this pertinent information, they jump to conclusions and create conspiracies when, in actuality, there’s nothing there.

Leaders have the ability to stop the rumor mill in its tracks by being the role models their team members need. Instead of listening to gossip or passing on potentially false information, leaders go directly to the source to find out the truth about what happened. When other team members see this taking place, they will be encouraged to do the same—with each other and with you as well.

Mutually Support All

There is no chain of command when it comes to building trust; in this case, the playing field is level. Everyone deserves to be trusted regardless of your position or theirs.

Effective leaders are well aware of this, and so they make sure they interact with all of their team members equally, and support one employee’s efforts just as much as the next one’s. It takes everyone to get results, and everyone must feel that sense of equality and trust if you want them to be motivated to succeed.


People that exude trust know that it’s smarter to focus on what’s best for the team, not what’s best for self. They are outwardly focused and flexible, willing to help anyone on the team who needs a hand—as well as teams in other areas of the organization. In order for an organization to be successful, everyone must feel as though they have a stake in the outcome of their work.

This begins with trust—which you can’t expect team members to feel if you play favorites or put your own ego first. Mutual support will earn you mutual trust, and that’s what it takes to get results.

Putting It All Together

Think for a moment about the people within your organization whom you trust. The odds are excellent that these people exhibit all four of the trust behaviors we discussed above: listens, accepts responsibility, practices confidentiality, and mutually supports all. Do you? Try putting all four trust actions to work right now and you will see a difference—possibly even before the day is over.

How Can You Implement Trust in Your Employees?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

Dr. Mary Kay

Dr. Mary Kay is a business leadership strategist, executive coach, trainer, author, and founder of the About Leaders community and drMaryKay.com. She’s consulted with hundreds of companies and trained thousands of leaders. Her Ultimate Leader Online course helps managers become more confident, decisive leaders. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

  • Dr. Mary Kay, another terrific article – thanks for sharing! You have a unique ability to explain ideas we have all heard (and thought we learned) in a usable and clear way. Love the discussion on trust and how actions really do speak louder than words. I’ve already placed on my post-it reminder board… to practice every day!

  • Dear Dr. Mary,

    I certainly concur with your article from a personal experience, and I truly appreciate your work.




    Abu Dhabi, UAE.

  • Dr. Kay,

    Thank you for highlighting the importance of behavior in building trust.

    I believe it was Stephen Covey that said if you want people to trust you, you must be trust-“worthy” …. and that comes from consistent behavior, over time, so that others have a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength in you as a leader.

    Too often we talk more about trust versus letting our actions speak for themselves. It also seems that we expect others to “trust” we are trustworthy, but do not extend that same courtesy to others…asking that they “prove” their trustworthiness. This seems backwards and a little arrogant.

    Leaders should start with the expectation they need to let their behavior demonstrate (prove) to others they are trustworthy, and leaders should extend trust to others, and only pull back if, and when, trust has been broken.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article.

  • I have found that some of the worst bosses are the ones that manage up a lot better than down on purpose. Last year my previous boss retired and there was a collective sigh of relief. She was an unmitigated disaster to the extent that I ask myself how in the heck she was promoted into that position. She consistently looked after her own self-interests to the exclusion of anyone else. If anything went wrong it was a subordinate’s fault, if it was something that was successful, it was all her. She was also a mean person that denigrated people in front of others and I have a feeling she was asked to retire after she said something to me in front of an HR person. I swear she took 5 years off my life. Good riddance.

  • Dr. Mary Kay Whitaker

    Thanks to all of you on your comments today. You have offered additional insights, tips, and personal experience that really add to our discussion and clarify the priority for building trust.

  • Dr. Rachelle Sallee

    The fear of demotion, a negative evaluation, or group isolation are also reasons employees don’t speak up. Unfortunately, the politics of an organization can mitigate trust, transparency, and the collaborative process.

  • Mitigate or aggravate?

  • Great article – thank you for your insights. You pointed out the things that people look for when trusting another. The ideas in your article are similar to a four element trust model that are as simple as ABCD! A=Able, do people think you are able to/capable of doing your job; B=Believeable, do others think you are truthful; C=Caring, do others think you have their interests in mind; D=Dependable, do you do what you say you will do.
    There’s even a theory that the elements of trust are linked to behavioral/social styles. That is, the left-sided, task oriented behavior styles look for the A&D while the right-sided, relationship oriented are attracted to the B&C of the model.
    Please feel free to contact me if you’d like more information.

  • A very tricky topic indeed. Leaders working on building trust is of course important. But let me play the devil’s advocate here 🙂 I also think this creates a neurotic feeling of ‘You are the leader. If you were perfect, your employees would be perfect’. Reality is different. We are all imperfect.

    Instead of asking ‘Why are employees afraid to speak up?’, we can also ask ‘Why are only SOME employees afraid to speak up?’ to the same leader. In my experience in employee as well as leadership positions, I have observed that the ‘victim’ attitude can wreck havoc.
    Fear of being at fault: When employees speak up, the stance is often ‘See I told you he would not listen. How can I trust him?’. Fact: ‘He did not AGREE with me. How can I trust him?’ The ability to identify such employees who lack the objectivity and the ability to look within is also important.

    Consistency is also about personal perceptions: Consistency in a leader’s behaviour means different things to different people. A,B,C might seem consistent to me only if I can perceive the “common rationale” based on MY opinion. If I cannot, they seem inconsistent. Being consistent risks becoming ‘proving consistency’ – which is unrealistic. Self-integrity might be a better option. Being true to your principles(and being open to being challenged), without being afraid of people’s reactions.

    Accepting responsibility vs being neurotic: As a leader, accepting responsibility for my own mistakes is paramount. Not taking responsibility for everybody’s mistakes is also important. Since that doesn’t lead anywhere. The trick is to accept responsibility as a team, but more importantly – be able to explain each person’s role in it. That might help in the future in improving as a team.

    Trust has no hierarchy. It has to be earned both ways. A good way to earn trust is to start trusting.

  • Dr. Ed S. Turner III

    Dr. Whitaker,

    I have found trust to be one of the hardest concepts to understand in organizations. I have used an experiential training workshop on trust to allow an organization or teams to see trust in action. Basically, the team experiences the workshop entitled ” The Prisoner’s dilemma.”

    I setup the situation and have the team go through the dilemma and after experiencing the workshop I as the facilitator interject process questions to have the discussion highlight what it takes to have trust in the workplace.

    The experience in nonthreatening and fun. The questions take the learning to a new level.

    I would be willing to share my experience with you and the group.

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.