Thursday, October 23, 2014

Can We Talk?

Getting your employees to open up

I think many organizations face an internal dilemma in wanting candid feedback and input from their employees, but also being afraid to hear it. On the other hand, creating an environment where people feel free to open up is important to our success, both from an individual management perspective as well as an organizational perspective.

James Detert, a professor at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management who specializes in transparent communication in the workplace, says that initiating more one-on-one, casual conversations can help by giving some employees an option they may be more comfortable with.

Silence usually means people are holding back," says Joseph Grenny, the coauthor of Crucial Conversations and the cofounder of VitalSmarts, a corporate training company. Finding out why they might avoid speaking up will help you to find ways to encourage them to offer their opinions. Are they concerned about your reaction? Do they think it’s not worthwhile to voice concerns due to their perception that other suggestions were never considered or implemented?

Detert also advises to "stop waiting for people to come to you — go out and ask them yourself." It may be easier to respond to an open question than to take the initiative to come to you and start the conversation.
How can you encourage your staff to speak up honestly on important issues? 

Trust through non-judgment. Encourage your employees to communicate honestly, openly and as frequent as necessary. As is the case with many management issues, if you model the behavior you want to see in your staff, you’re more likely to get it. When you communicate in this manner, both with your staff and your boss, your employees will know they can talk about problems and mistakes without concern for harsh judgment.

Don’t shoot the messenger. Almost nothing can destroy trust and initiative faster. As managers, we know that there are times when people have to relay messages. If that person keeps getting shot down simply for passing on the information, he will not only not come back, but eventually no one else will, either.

Encourage others to express differing viewpoints. Let your staff know they can disagree (respectfully) with you and discuss it. This gives both you and them the opportunity to understand each other’s views. It may not change the ultimate decision or plan in the end, but it may uncover roadblocks you may not have considered. And if that’s the case, thank them for telling you!

Reward honest and open communication. Rewards can be as simple as "thank you for telling me"; or more authority and autonomy if possible. Again, showing your staff that constructive conversation and critical analyses will be recognized will encourage them to continue. 

Keep them informed. Everyone wants to know what’s going on. Keep your employees informed about what’s happening in the organization. The more they feel informed about their organization, the better they feel about their part in it. If you don’t know the answer or don’t know the reason for a corporate decision, admit that, but then try to find out and follow-up.

Encourage information sharing. You’re a manager. It makes no sense for you to be the only one to keep your team informed. Expect your staff to share information with each other regularly. Involve others in giving updates and sharing other relevant and important information.

Constructive, not destructive. You may not always like what an employee tells you. There may even be a time the criticism is about you. Be open to it, don’t be defensive. Have the conversation and ask questions –explore the issue – whatever it is. You don’t have to make every change or implement every idea presented to you, but when you listen without judgment, it will encourage your employees to continue looking for things that can be improved.

Allow the ability to place "blame". No, not pass the buck, or throw someone else under the bus. But for instance, you can ask what other people are saying about an issue. For some employees who are not yet comfortable in owning their opinions or at least not expressing them openly, this gives them the opportunity to get them out in the open in a safer fashion. 

Respond in a timely fashion. A general rule of thumb is to get back to people within twenty-four hours. And it’s even better when you can shorten that time. When someone sends you an email, letter, or leaves a phone message, get back to her as soon as you can; even if it’s just to let her know where you are in addressing the issue or concern. And just as importantly, if not more so, do what you said you would do.

Try some (or all!) of these steps and you’ll be on your way to more open and honest communication throughout your organization. But remember: it begins with you. If you are open and honest, your people will follow your example.

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