Are Employees Withholding Valuable Information?

February 12th, 2016

According to an article in Harvard Businesss Review, your employees may be withholding valuable information that you need as a leader. James Detert and Ethan Burris write,

Maybe it’s about a project that’s gone off track or a manager who’s behaving badly. Or maybe they’re not sharing their thoughts on ways the business could grow its sales or improve operations. No matter how open you are as a manager, our research shows, many of your people are more likely to keep mum than to question initiatives or suggest new ideas at work.

Detert and Burns give are two reasons why employees clam up:

The Fear Factor. People won't talk if they don't feel safe. It may seem counter intuitive, but according to Detert and Burris, relying on anonymous feedback sends a strong message. 

With anonymity, the subtext is, “It’s not safe to share your views openly.”

The Futility Factor. More important than fear, people withhold ideas and concerns because they believe that managers won't do anything about them anyway. So, “why bother?”

Some leaders spend millions collecting ideas but then never really review them.

How to Create a More Vocal Culture

So how can you help employees speak up? The authors’ research gleaned the following best practices:

1. Make feedback a regular, casual exchange.

Regular face-to-face conversations and requests for input and idea sharing feel “less ominous and more natural.”

2. Be transparent.

Clarity about the process can reduce anxiety and increase participation. Upfront guidelines and commitments feel less daunting and futile to employees.

3. Reach out.

Solicit feedback actively. Don’t wait for things to get bad. And, listen actively --  even when good suggestions don’t fit your current priorities. 

4. Soften the power cues.

When possible, have conversations in the other person's territory -- not from behind the executive desk. If a conversation takes place in your office, make guests feel welcome.

If you really want to get the truth from below, play down your power.

5. Be the example.

Employees feel inspired and encouraged when they know leaders courageously advocate for them to higher-ups. 

6. Close the loop.

Follow-up is critical. Tell people what happened because of their feedback.

In conclusion the authors write …

Most people care too much about their social and material well-being to routinely speak truth to power—unless you clear some obstacles out of the way. … What will make a difference is taking steps to assure people that it’s both safe and worthwhile to contribute, no matter where they sit in the organization.

Read the entire article at HBR.org