Speak Up

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.

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 work 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 owerhave with you is solid, built on a proven framework of trust and reliability.

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.

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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.

Why Don’t Employees Speak Up?

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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.