Why Employees Don’t Speak Up

By Dr. Mary Kay

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Employees won’t speak up when they are fearful of doing so. I’ve noticed that people say, “The number one factor for people not speaking up 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?

In our leadership development training, we often ask participants: “If I had a concern about your participation in this session, would you want me to come to you directly and tell you about it, or would you rather I go tell your boss?”

The answer is always unanimous. They would rather I approach them directly to discuss the situation. Of course, that is the right thing to do!

Our next question is, “What if I told your boss about your lack of participation and didn’t communicate to you? How would that affect our trust?”

Again, there is a unanimous answer. There would be no trust between us. Trust would be broken. The lack of going directly to people about topics that apply to a person’s behavior has created a significant lack of trust in organizations.  As a result, it has caused employees to not speak up.

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 babysit instead of building teams that run the business.

Speak Up and Take Time to Reflect

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 four 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 and helping you 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.

Speak Up About the Rumor Mill

The Rumor Mill Has to Be Stopped

People can get caught up in the rumor mill, even when they don’t mean to. But when people spread rumors about co-workers and distract others with unfavorable perceptions,  the culture becomes fractured. Managers tell their peers about a difficult employee but fail to discuss it with the employee themselves.

Each person wants to be trusted and hear information directly. But they don’t practice the leadership skill of communicating directly. Why? The most common answers are, “I don’t want to hurt that person’s feelings.” “If I do, the situation will get worse”. In reality, the result of not going direct damages the working relationship – it breaks trust.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to earn the trust of your team if you are actively participating in the rumor mill. Active participation includes listening to the rumor. In others words, even just listening gives the other person an opportunity to spread the rumor.

On the other side, by repeating only productive information—no rumors or gossip—and communicating directly with those who are involved in the situation at hand, people establish trust with their team members. They know that they must practice confidentiality to be an example of trust and to earn the respect of others.

Not Getting Feedback from Employees?

If you’re a receptive, attentive leader, chances are employees will have no problem coming to you with their concerns. When employees approach you so freely, you can pretty much rest assured that you are utilizing trust as your number one priority and have a great relationship with the people you lead.

But what if your team members don’t want to talk to you? What if they don’t trust you? Would they risk speaking up to a manager they have no faith in? Probably not, and therein lies the problem that must be solved: If your employees don’t trust you enough to talk to you about what’s wrong, how will you ever know?

The majority of the time, employees know what is or is not working in the company. They have a wealth of knowledge and power. Employees will not bubble up this important information unless the relationship they have with you is solid and built on a proven framework of trust and reliability.

Skeaking Up and Taking Responsibility

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.

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 with 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 is 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 a 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.

Teamwork and Supportive Atmosphere

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 their 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.

Here’s the Solution

In order to test your leadership skills, let’s go through another exercise that we use in our leadership training. Think of an employee with whom you’ve had problems; for this example, we’ll call her Linda. Could it be that Linda does not perform to her full potential because she doesn’t trust you? Let’s go through the four behaviors of trust that we discussed last week and see what the cause of Linda’s problem may be.

When using this checklist, many of our leaders that are working on their leadership skills realize that they are not practicing the four behaviors of trust with difficult employees or actually anyone difficult they personally encounter.

When they change their behaviors and concentrate more on being accountable, responsible, confidential, and supportive, they begin to see results right away.

  • Have you been listening to Linda? Are you as receptive to her as you are to other employees? Do you greet her in the morning? Or do you avoid her because she annoys you?
  • Have you accepted responsibility for the fact that you might be part of Linda’s problem? Look at your own actions: What could you be doing differently with her? Do you blame her when things go wrong, even if it’s not entirely her fault? Are you focusing on helping her succeed? Or are you just focused on her next vacation, when she’ll be out of your hair for a week?
  • Have you been practicing confidentiality with Linda, or do you complain about her to others? When we backslide, we can, unfortunately, badmouth others. Are you guilty of this bad habit?
  • Do you support Linda as much as you do everybody else on the team? Do you give her the same amount of work? Do you provide her with the same resources that you would another employee?

What about you? Are you ready to do some self-examination and change the way you deal with challenging people? Take the first step—try changing the way you interact with your Linda. You will be amazed by the result.

If you can’t understand why someone’s not doing what you want them to, look at yourself first and figure out if you are the cause of the hesitancy. Using the checklist helps you determine what behaviors to start doing and which ones would be beneficial to stop doing.

  • Am I effectively listening? Yes or No?
  • Have I accepted responsibility? Yes or No?
  • Am I practicing confidentiality? Yes or No?
  • Am I mutually supportive of the person I consider difficult? Yes or No?

If your answer to any of these questions is “No,” take immediate steps to change them to “Yes.” Refer back to the meaning of each of these four trust behaviors. Stop talking, and ask more questions; really listen to what people have to say. You do not need to fix or solve their problems right away, and often listening to them first will help the solution present itself.

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: listening, accepting responsibility, practicing confidentiality, and mutually supporting 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 Build Trust So Employees can Speak Up?

If you have ideas about speaking up that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

Dr. Mary Kay on FacebookDr. Mary Kay on Twitter
Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay is a business leadership strategist, executive coach, trainer, author, and co-founder of the About Leaders community. She’s consulted with hundreds of companies and trained over 30,000 leaders. Her Ultimate Leader Masterclass helps managers become more confident, decisive leaders.
  • Stacia Madden says:

    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!

  • Fadi Beydoun says:

    Dear Dr. Mary,

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




    Abu Dhabi, UAE.

  • Stephen B. Carman says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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.

  • Cynthia Rogers says:

    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 says:

    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.

  • Beyond Passive Communication: No Misunderstandings! (For Managers & Employees) | Sancus Leadership says:

    […] a small team requires active communication, but many leaders don’t encourage their employees to speak up when something goes wrong or when they’re upset about something […]

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
    Brilliant Leadership Logo

    Improve Yourself & Your Team

    Get The Training Proven By 40,000+ Leaders