In tough times like these, you need employees to be up-front about problems they're experiencing on the job--whether it's an angry customer, a process that no longer works or a project that's heading for disaster.

Smart leaders know that employees are a source of new ideas, as well as a first line of defense against damage to the bottom line.

For many rank-and-file employees, however, offering critical feedback seems more risky right now--they're less inclined to rock the boat. Loose lips can sink ships, and your employees don't want to sink their own ship in the middle of an economic storm. An employee might think, "This project is going to have problems, but I'm not going to be the one to tell the boss."

Maybe you've noticed some employees seem more reticent, a little more willing to go along with the status quo. The feedback they offer is innocuous instead of enlightening. You wonder what happened to these go-getters.

Leaders shouldn't underestimate the impact the recession is having on employees' psyche. A December 2008 Yahoo! Hot Jobs survey found 1 in 3 employees were worried about his or her job. Meanwhile, more than 70 percent of 300 married working couples in a recent Florida State University study said the recession has significantly increased employee stress levels. More than 65 percent expected major job changes over the next twelve months.

Even if your company hasn't downsized, employees still read the news. They know the unemployment rate is high. They probably know someone currently unemployed, or about to be. Many of them silently fear they could be next. From their perspective, it's better to keep their heads down, their noses to the grindstone and their mouths shut. Self-imposed silence becomes a means of self-preservation.

But, you say, the employees at my company talk all day long. Yes, they do. In fact, it's an irony of this recession that employees are communicating more than ever--using collaborative software, intranet sites, instant messaging, social media and any gadget they can get their hands on. Employees aren't lacking for ways to communicate; it's what is missing from the communication that's the problem.

So how can you get employees to offer critical feedback?

Tips to Break the Silence Barrier

  1. Dissect your company culture . Is silence a cultural problem where employees feel their ideas and opinions are routinely ignored, or is it limited to a few employees? An employee might feel added performance anxiety if her spouse just lost his job, for example. Assessing your culture lets you gauge the scope of the problem and come up with a game plan.
  2. Recognize employees' fears. Employees' worst nightmare right now is saying or doing something that makes the boss lose confidence in them. Let employees know how important critical thought is to the company's future, and that you welcome their contributions.
  3. Reward good input . Celebrate contributions that lead to improvements, and make it fun. For example, you might buy a cheap, silly item from a second-hand store to use as a trophy that's handed out to employees whose input solved a problem. When you make it more fun to offer critical input, employees will start to see it that way, too.
  4. Build a sense of community . Employees want to know that everyone's in it together. Let them know how the company is doing so they don't fill in the blanks. The key is good communication. Employees who trust management are more likely to say what they think.
  5. Use size to your advantage . There's less top-down management in a small company, which allows for more closeness and creativity on the job. Regular one-on-one meetings are a simple way to keep up with individual employees and get them talking. Some employees might feel more comfortable sharing what they think in a one-on-one instead of a staff meeting, anyway.

Finally, don't lose confidence in employees who seem to be holding back lately. They're still very smart, talented employees--the economy just has them running scared. Let your team know that it's okay to stop running, sit down and put their thoughts on the table. You're bottom line with thank you, and so will they.