Be honest, now: Getting your employees to speak their minds

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Managers need to show that they are committed to hearing criticism regularly and formally (Source: Getty)

"Within organisations, people often have to make decisions about whether to speak up or remain silent – whether to share or withhold their ideas, opinions, and concerns,” say Frances Milliken and Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison in Shades of Silence. “In many cases, they choose the safe response of silence, withholding input that could be valuable to others or thoughts that they wish they could express.”

When the boss’s feelings are at stake, it can be difficult for staff to speak honestly. But the success of businesses depends on problems being reported early and processes improved constantly. So how can managers incentivise constructive criticism, and show that it won’t be taken personally?

EACH TO THEIR OWN

Having an “open door” sends the message that you welcome criticism, but it’s of little consequence if none of your staff is prepared to walk through it. The problem is that employees are paranoid about crossing the dreaded line between constructive feedback and dissension. And few are likely to fire the first shot if there is a chance they might forgo a promotion or a pay rise.

The challenge for managers is to approach quieter colleagues without making them feel like they are on-the-spot. “People react differently in formal settings, such as during selection interviews, than in informal settings, such as at home with family,” says Aldert Vrij in Detecting Lies and Deceit. Managers should engage such staff in relaxed conversation, and raise issues they may have a problem with. They are more likely to be candid if they feel comfortable and don’t fear the consequences of a formal process.

MAKE IT ROUTINE

Informal conversations may be better for getting the opinions of more introverted team members.

But you need to show staff that you are committed to hearing their thoughts regularly, and processing them formally.

Managers should consider holding specific meetings dedicated to raising problems, author Joseph Grenny told the Harvard Business Review. “Tell your team you want to hear everything that’s wrong with Project X,” he said. “Then build consensus… to help you figure out: how do we deal with these challenges together?”

Making feedback routine is also crucial. “Don’t let your team get out of the habit of speaking up,” She suggests appointing a different representative before every meeting to bring up issues and concerns on behalf of the group, thereby defusing possible tension and too much personal accountability.

DON'T BE DEFENSIVE

Whether their feedback relates to strategy or internal practices, an employee will stop dead in their tracks at the first sign of a manager’s disapproval. You must also ensure that colleagues don’t pounce on each other’s ideas too quickly during group discussions, where there is a tendency to be hypercritical.

Even if you disagree, it is vital that you let staff put their entire view forward before you discuss its merits. “When an employee tells you something that makes you think, ‘Wait, they don’t know anything about this situation,’ just clamp your lips shut for a minute,” counselor Caris Thetford told the Muse. “Yes, as the boss, you have a high-level perspective on many things that your subordinates don’t have. But they have a perspective you don’t have... Listen. Turn the feedback over in your mind. Then respond.”

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