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Getting Employees to Tell the Whole Truth When You Need to H…

Let’s face it. Every organization has employees who fear telling their bosses the whole truth about workplace problems because such honesty can be career-limiting. In fact, it’s likely that most employees feel this way at some point in their careers.

Employee self-censorship usually amounts to a simple act of self-preservation because nobody wants a reputation as the office complainer. Employees will often resist giving honest feedback due to concerns that their leaders may oppose suggestions for change. Or employees will stay silent in the presence of senior staff because they fear they might say the wrong thing or show up their bosses in front of other managers.

Related: The 4 Best Tools For Internal Business Communication

All these factors make it hard for managers to build staff alignment. Leaders can only achieve their goals by coordinating the actions of their teams, yet such coordination requires buy-in from the people doing the actual work on the frontlines. Most leaders lack effective ways to engage in actionable discussions with dozens or hundreds of their followers.

Considerable research shows that employees who feel free to express their views at work are much more apt to perform better and stay on staff longer. For instance, highly engaged employees are 50 percent more likely to exceed expectations than non-engaged workers, based on research from the Hay Group. In addition, companies with highly engaged teams far outperform those with the most disengaged employees — by 54 percent in employee retention, by 89 percent in customer satisfaction and by fourfold in revenue growth.

Reduce power from above, and get the truth from below.

Various methods to overcome this communications impasse include the use of all-hands feedback sessions, employee hotlines, suggestion boxes and pulse surveys. Each of these tools provides some value, but leaders often need to engage in a deeper level of conversation with their followers to really understand what’s happening beneath the surface.

Some managers promote an “open-door policy” in which their office doors (and ears) are always open to members of their teams. While most managers encourage an open-door policy, in theory, it usually doesn’t work out that way in practice.

Related: 9 Powerful Ways to Lead By Example

Employees may fear requesting a personal meeting with their bosses to air grievances. Or they might resist giving negative feedback about any initiatives that are close to the boss’s heart. Employees who do build up the courage to approach their managers might be intimidated to find the boss seated in a big ergonomic chair behind a huge desk in a fancy office with awards lining the shelves and walls. Such subtle power cues can undermine any efforts to nurture an open exchange of ideas.

One approach to overcome this divide is known as “management by walking around,” or MBWA. Managers who patrol the workplace can casually talk with employees about what’s really happening in their job environments. In this way, employees feel less intimidated because they are in familiar territory. MBWA also signals the boss’s interest in getting out and really listening to employees in the trenches, rather than just issuing commands from some remote corner office.

Yet even when leaders make a sincere effort to listen to their reports, all that goodwill can quickly vanish if no subsequent actions are taken. A failure to act results in what is known as “the futility factor” for employees, according to James R. Detert at the University of Virginia Darden Graduate Business School and Ethan R. Burris at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas.

By not closing the loop on employee suggestions, bosses increase their subordinates’ belief that speaking up made no difference by 30 percent, based on surveys of 3,500 employees at multiple companies. Those surveys, by Detert and Burris, also showed that employees spoke up 19 percent more frequently when their managers had closed the loop in the past.

Another effective approach for improving employee communications involves the regular use of targeted crowdsourcing sessions. Employees can use new crowdsourcing software platforms to brainstorm project priorities, then vote up the best suggestions. Leaders who adopt those top suggestions will greatly improve staff alignment because employees will feel they are finally being heard.

Related: 6 Tips for Hearing Tough Feedback

Anonymous crowdsourcing sessions make it safer for employees to tell the truth. When the real underlying problems are revealed in this way, leaders can engage their teams to be part of the solution. Employees will work harder for a successful outcome by knowing it was their idea.

In the end, getting employees to tell the whole truth about their jobs requires their leaders to set a strong example. This can only be done by being transparent about team goals, seeking out substantive advice from employees and implementing concrete action plans based on that direct feedback.


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