How to Encourage Your Team to Speak Up

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TL;DR: Studies have shown that most companies’ attempts to get open and honest communication from their employees fall flat because 1) employees fear there could be negative consequences, and 2) employees don’t believe that addressing issues will lead to actual change. If you want your team to be more transparent, you need to build a culture of honest communication. This means setting up systems for unfiltered feedback and then setting aside resources to address employee concerns.

One day, a member of your team happens to overhear one of your sales reps chatting with a customer. He’s in the conference room with the door propped open, lying through his teeth about the capabilities of your product, which results in an upgrade–and a hefty bump in his paycheck. This kind of deception may increase sales, but it explicitly goes against your company values, and ultimately sets your customer success team up for failure. What happens next? While most people claim they’d speak up in this kind of situation, few actually do. According to an HBR study of 1,025 managers and employees, most people will ruminate, complain to their peers, and even pick up extra work before saying something. Many workplaces take measures to create a more positive environment. They create open door policies, document “transparency” as one of their company values, and set up feedback loops. But experts say that these protocols aren’t effective enough to encourage employees to voice their concerns. Instead, you need to start by addressing the underlying problem: your company culture. To get truly candid feedback from your team members, you need to create a safe, supportive environment that encourages everyone to speak up and contribute.

Why “Open Door” Doesn’t Mean Anything

Open door policies are popular in cubical-free, snack-stocked offices across the country–but they do little to encourage open and honest communication. Dr. Detert of Cornell and Dr. Edminson of Harvard asked 200 employees and managers whether this policy is effective. They found that:

The perceived risks of speaking up felt very personal and immediate to employees, whereas the possible future benefit to the organization from sharing their ideas was uncertain. So people often instinctively played it safe by keeping quiet.

Employees don’t want to risk their reputation or relationship with their manager to voice a problem that may or may not be dealt with. Detert and Edminson attribute this silence to two factors:

  • Fear:

    Few concerns are worth losing your salary over. Most people believe that, despite what managers may claim, there will be some form of negative consequences when feedback might be interpreted as complaining or throwing someone under the bus. 

  • Ineffectiveness:

    Most employees don’t feel like their concerns would be addressed, even if they did speak up. 

The combination of risk and the lack of reward dissuades people from speaking up. To change the culture around communication, you need to first mitigate fear, and then prove that speaking up can bring about positive change in your company.

Mitigate Fear by Creating a Safe Space

Honesty comes in many forms. It can be hinted at discreetly, it can be sugar-coated, or it can be delivered bluntly. Kim Scott, a former executive at Google, believes that “radical candor” is the best way to create a healthy BS-free zone that benefits both managers and employees. Radical candor is clarity offered in the spirit of genuine support, where people feel it’s their responsibility to point out one another’s weaknesses to give them a hand up to the next level. Scott illustrates radical candor by giving an example in which her very considerate boss told her that a bad speaking habit–saying “um” often–made her sound unintelligent, and then offered to pay for a speaking coach to improve the problem. While this wasn’t “nice,” her directness compelled her to take the feedback seriously and improve.  In order to successfully institute this practice, both for managers and employees, there need to be two components:

  1. Caring personally.

     The person giving feedback needs to show investment in the person getting feedback so they understand that the constructive feedback comes from a desire to help them improve, not tear them down. 

  2. Challenging directly.

     The person giving feedback needs to tell the complete truth that will help their peer or manager work through their weaknesses.

When the manager practices radical candor from a place of investment in their well-being, it encourages the employees to do the same, creating a culture of transparency.  It turns out that many of the practices that businesses use to promote feedback actually discourage radical candor:

  • Anonymous feedback surveys

    reinforce the idea

    that there’s a risk to speaking up and discourage people from challenging managers or peers directly.

  • Inviting employees into your office for closed-door meetings 

    reinforces the perceived power dynamic, undermining any attempts to show that you care personally.

Employees work hard to create a positive rapport with their team, and they don’t want one comment to ruin all of that. Even subtle indications that honesty could result in negative consequences is enough to keep your team quiet.  Here are three practices that will help you apply radical candor and alleviate fears of negative repercussions. 

1. Institute 360-Degree feedback

360-degree feedback is when everyone receives feedback directly from everyone they work with–whether they’re peers or managers. The idea is that you’re held accountable to be a great employee no matter what position you hold at the company. Recent critiques to multi-directional feedback, however, have pointed out that they can have adverse effects too–employees can spread negativity or create more problems than they solve. One study showed that 360-degree feedback actually lowered performance in one-third of cases. This process fails when it isn’t set up properly. Employees need to align with what makes for a good team member and they need to be well-positioned to give feedback on the specifics of the job. For instance, you shouldn’t ask “How can x improve as a manager?” Instead, you should ask, “Does x give you challenging and achievable goals during your 1:1s?” Google creates clear criteria for each role before asking team members to give feedback. Managers, for instance, are evaluated based on a 13-question feedback survey.  Based on this criteria, they ask employees to rate how much they agree or disagree with statements like: “My manager does not ‘micromanage’ (i.e., get involved in details that should be handled at other levels)” and “My manager gives me actionable feedback that helps me improve my performance.” Setting up criteria for each job role helps focus employees’ feedback. It frames their input as helpful for all parties and minimizes the anxiety about treading the line between productive and offensive. 

2. Set up contrarian office hours

Insights that have the biggest effect on an organization are huge challenges to the standard way of thinking. They propose a radical shift of company purpose or a total overhaul of a process. But for people to voice these opinions, team members need to feel like their ideas won’t be shut down, no matter how controversial.  Mobile deep-linking company URX created a process called “contrarian office hours,” where team members are invited to “be contrarians.” Every Friday, the team gets together to talk through any issues–particularly controversial ones–in an open forum. During these meetings, they’ve changed their packaging, their vacation policies, and decided on what kind of customers they’ll take on. According to the CEO, “It creates a safe space where people are not just allowed to mix things up, but given express permission to call things out. It also primes people to not take things personally.”

3. Discuss long-term goals in 1:1s

A big factor that suppresses opinions is a conflict of interest. Employees hesitate when it comes to talking about their long-term career ambitions, fearing that managers will see this as a lack of commitment to their current job. But Steve Newcomb, founder of over 12 successful startups, encourages managers to discuss career goals past what’s possible within their time at the company. He calls this “renting gold” rather than “buying gold.” By scheduling half-hour walking 1:1s you can have person-to-person conversations on an even playing field–outside of a typical office setting. During these 1:1s, strive for discovering a mutually beneficial relationship in which the team member knows what they need to do to work towards their ultimate career goal, and you’ll get an engaged, highly-dedicated team member. This type of conversation will open up the door for a candid discussion that’s just as much people-focused as it is business-focused. Rather than feeling like a cog in the machine, your employees will feel like they’re learning and growing because they’re building something together.

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In a survey of 3,500 employees, an HBR study found the feeling of ineffectiveness increases up to 30% when leaders fail to close the loop and take any action on feedback. From a manager’s perspective, however, it’s difficult to address the concerns of every employee–especially once you start getting feedback on a regular basis. Sarah might feel frustrated with a lack of structure in her role, but James might feel like he’s not getting enough autonomy.  Naturally, it’s impossible to make everyone happy, but it is possible to change the team’s perspective on how feedback is put into action. Rather than becoming the problem-solver, rope everyone into the process of instituting positive change at your company. You’ll find issues as a team, and you’ll look for solutions as a team. To ensure more effective follow-through for your team, use the following three steps: 

1. Use the five whys to find the underlying issue

An employee’s feedback is rarely actionable at face value. When they tell you that the waterfall methodology isn’t working or that the dev team isn’t listening to the product team, you need to dig deeper to discover the root cause. Start a dialogue around every piece of feedback by applying the five whys framework. With this framework, whenever you hear a problem from an employee, ask them why they think this is the case. When they answer, you ask “why” again–and then several more times. Each answer should get more specific and closer to the root cause of the problem. Here’s an example of how this works in a real conversation.

Team member: The product team and dev team are constantly butting heads.  You: Why? Team member: The product manager keeps setting unrealistic deadlines for the dev team. You: Why? Team member: They don’t know how much work goes into building out a feature when you’re working with legacy code. You: Why? Team member: The only time they talk to developers is during product scoping meetings, so they’re removed. You: Why? Team member: They work closely with the customer success team. You: Why? Team member: That is where they learn about the customer and what they like and dislike about the product.

In this example, you might decide that it’s better to have the product manager work more closely with the dev team in order to understand what it would take to bring about an improvement.  This framework will help you get to the underlying issues of seemingly unrelated problems. Even more importantly, it will show your team members that you care. 

2. Devote resources to making change happen

When your team members see you running from meeting to meeting and working long hours, they can easily get the impression that you don’t have time to deal with their concerns. Or they might assume that a fix doesn’t fit into the budget. Team members see a lack of funds, time, and manpower, so they don’t bother speaking up. Chris Savage of Wistia recommends that leaders delegate problems rather than solutions. Rather than decide on the best fix and then ask employees to follow a list of directions, explain the problem and have them look for the best way to solve it. So rather than saying, “migrate company-wide documentation to Confluence,” say, “find a better way to document processes.” This emphasis gets team members invested in company-wide problems and takes some pressure off your shoulders. To enable this autonomy, you need to devote two types of resources to making it happen:

  • Time.

    Free up 5 to 10% of employees’ time for working on projects outside the realm of their typical day-to-day. This ensures that you’re not assigning extra work and setting unrealistic expectations.

  • Money.

    Create an “improvement budget.” It doesn’t need to be a lot, but putting just $100-$200 into the bank helps you put your money where your mouth is. 

While you may say you’re interested in addressing your employees concerns, it won’t come across as genuine unless the resources are available to institute a fix.

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3. Follow-through and follow-up

Lastly, make sure that initiatives don’t fall through the cracks–negligence signals to employees that their concerns aren’t important. To stay on top of all ongoing projects, create a bug board just like the ones that product teams use to keep track of bugs in software. You can use yours to keep track of hiccups in your processes and have an overview of every problem so you can prioritize and assign responsibility.  Start with a simple whiteboard in your office or use your pm tool to keep track of tasks. For your improvement projects to be successful, make sure to:

  • Keep one person responsible for the fix, and check in with them weekly on the status of the project.

  • Set deadlines that keep individuals accountable for completing projects.

Once a solution has been found, you should announce it to the whole team and explain what initially sparked the project. This will serve as positive reinforcement for speaking up and resolving problems rather than avoiding them. 

Create a Culture of Communication

Every company claims to be interested in feedback, but few actually find a way to make that happen. When employees see that processes are set up to encourage other objectives–such as the evaluation of employee performance or the troubleshooting of bugs–it seems like anything without a set process is less important. But if you take time to create channels for gathering and applying feedback, then the experience feels less terrifying. You will encourage team members to speak freely about any problems that they encounter, creating a culture of open and honest communication.

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