Of all the employee complaints I hear, the most popular has to be managerial indifference. They tell me things like, “I’m not going to speak up because my boss never listens to me.”
Is it true? Maybe the employees simply lack courage or persistence. Perhaps the employees don’t know what you do with their excellent ideas. Whether it’s true or not, fair or unfair; if your employees believe it, you’ve got trouble. Big trouble.
I’m certain you want to be aware of problems. Your job would be much easier if you also had ideas for how to solve them. In that case, you need a set of strategies to change the perception that speaking up is a fruitless endeavor. Try these six.
1. Ask for suggestions
A generic statement about an open door policy won’t cut it. You need to constantly ask employees for their comments and suggestions. Ask them in groups at meetings. Ask them individually during one-on-ones or during any work-related dicussion. A simple, “Hey Jeff, you seem to have a good grasp of how things are going around here. What are you seeing and hearing?”
2. Thank people who speak up
When people come to you with concerns and ideas, stop what you are doing and listen. Regardless of the quality of what the person shares, thank her for bringing it to your attention. Try something like, “Joni, I’m glad you thought this was important enough to tell me. Some people think they should say nothing. I’m a big fan of getting it all out on the table. Only then do we have a chance to do something about it. Thank you.”
3. Avoid killing the messenger
When someone brings you bad news, you’re likely to feel your day taking a turn for the worse. Even if what the person says raises your blood pressure, you need to do everything in your power to not show it. If you want to stay in the loop, be as grateful for the bad as you are for the good. It’s not easy, but stick with the response from the previous section.
4. Give credit to people whose comments were the catalyst for a change
If enough people complain or grumble about a problem, this might be the thing that eventually sparks you to action. Of course, you’d like credit for taking the initiative. Hopefully your boss will provide it to you in private.
In public, your job is to spread around the credit for change, even if it’s only identifying the people who complained in the first place. Explain the change to your team. “I’ve got to say we would never have done anything about this if it wasn’t for many of you speaking up. In particular I’d like to thank Ed and Kaylie for pointing out the problems and Agnes for making the suggestion for what we ought to do about it.”
5. Don’t require problems come with a solution
There’s an old rule many managers like to impose on their teams. “Unless you have a proposed solution, you can’t bring up a problem.” While popular, I can’t think of a dumber rule than this one. Yes, it’s meant to get people to be better problem solvers, but it doesn’t work.
Use the team. Some people are better at seeing problems. Others are better at fixing them. You want to know the problems. Don’t make it harder for people to point them out.
6. Give people your rationale for ideas you reject
I recently went to an improv comedy show. The host informed us that the routines depended on suggestions from the audience. In advance he warned that the actors wouldn’t use all our ideas because they might have too many or because they are repetitive or because some just plain suck. In any case, he still wanted us to yell them out. Knowing the rules of engagement, we did.
When you reject an idea because you don’t believe it will work, tell people in advance that’s a possibility. People understand that. After all, suppose two team members offered competing ideas. If one is used the other will not be. Doesn’t mean one’s bad. Just means that one is better.
In the end, it’s best for you to let people know what you did with the ideas and why you made the decision that you did. I know, you don’t want to explain every decision you make. But if you want people to keep kicking in their suggestions, you should. When people feel heard, they are more willing to accept a decision that doesn’t go their way.
Great teams identify problems and deal with them
If that’s going to happen, people need to speak up. They will only do so if they believe you appreciate their contributions and that they will be considered and possibly even used. These six strategies create an atmosphere where your employees will say what’s on their minds.
Image credit: Katie Tegtmeyer