How to Make It Safe for Your Team to Tell You the Hard Truth
It's your responsibility to create an environment that encourages people to speak their minds.
Employees who speak the (often ugly) truth are your most valuable asset. Yet, it is extremely difficult to obtain candid feedback. Without such feedback, however, your team could idly watch you execute on a misguided decision. Let’s roll the clock back nearly 60 years for a lesson about what happens when a team remains silent and watches its leader fail . . .
In 1961 President Kennedy launched the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, a failed military take-over of Cuba. During the planning session, President Kennedy’s top advisors had grave concerns about the plan. They remained silent and blamed their silence on Kennedy’s absolute determination to overthrow Fidel Castro. The President was so committed to the idea that no one wanted to confront him. Ultimately, the failed invasion caused great embarrassment and loss of credibility for the President. It should be a significant concern if advisors to the President of the United States are afraid to speak or if the President surrounds himself with yes-men.
The same principles apply when it comes to leading your company. Whether you need to be warned about a horrible hiring decision you are about to make, or an ill-advised business venture, here is how to create an environment that elicits and encourages the truth.
Eliminate fear of retribution.
Employees stay silent as the result of a fear of retribution. They may be afraid of offending you or a member of your management team. They may fear being fired if they voice dissent. Ensure your organization welcomes input from all sources. Make it clear that no one will retaliate against an employee for providing feedback. Not all feedback is actionable, but that doesn’t matter. You must show gratitude for the employees who demonstrate the courage to come forward.
Celebrate the successes and explain the consequences.
If an employee’s idea makes the company better, be sure to recognize that success. It will lay the groundwork for others to emulate the same behavior.
On the other hand, employees must understand the consequences of staying silent. It could range from a costly business decision to ignoring a hazard that may injure a worker. My company operates in a high-consequence industry. Our employees know that remaining silent literally has life-and-death consequences.
Loosen up your inner circle.
If you surround yourself with a tight inner circle, others will be afraid to come forward. You are especially at risk if the inner circle tells you what you want to hear. Make it publicly known that you are in constant search of new ideas and improvement.
You cast a giant shadow. If you make it safe for employees to come forward, odds are that they will. If you come across as aloof and uninterested, employees will respond accordingly.
Provide employees with a confidential means to come forward.
I don’t like anonymous means to share this kind of information because I have no way to seek clarification. That said, I’d rather have confidentially submitted information than none. I also recognize that peer pressure is a barrier to employees coming forward with the truth. No one wants to be perceived by his/her peers as a snitch. However illogical this may be, it’s reality and makes confidentiality even more important.
Create a “team of rivals.”
Abraham Lincoln surrounded himself with a team of rivals, advisors with divergent opinions. Lincoln recognized that healthy debate generates better results. Deliberately surround yourself with a diverse group of advisors and make it known that conflict is not only welcome but expected. Abandon the notion that the best ideas originate in the C-suite. Your front lines often have the best ideas, and it’s up to you to ensure they have a voice.
To build a culture that encourages open ideas a leader needs to drive out behaviors that deter employees from coming forward. As a leader in search of the truth, ensure the following behaviors do not exist in your company.
The Bureaucrat. Bureaucrats rigidly follow the chain of command. They become offended by those who dare by-pass the hierarchy and will penalize accordingly. Because of how closely the bureaucrats guard the gates, they all but ensure that constructive feedback is muted.
The Blue Blood. Blue bloods believe that their longevity at the organization bestows a greater level of knowledge. Blue bloods have a sense of entitlement as a result of their tenure and will use it to suppress the ideas of newer teammates.
The Glory Keeper. These people hate to share the credit. If the glory keeper did not invent the idea, it is inherently bad. The glory keepers see another’s innovation as a threat. They fail to recognize that nothing important is ever accomplished alone.
It’s your responsibility to create an environment that encourages people to speak their minds. If you create the expectation and remove the barriers, you will begin to receive candid input. The more you listen and engage, the more you will build trust. Once trust is established, ideas will flow naturally.
Corporate culture and management advisor Brian Fielkow is the author of Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Culture, a how-to book based on his 25 years of executive leadership experience at public and privately held companies. With a doctorate in law from Northwestern University School of Law, he serves as owner and president of Jetco Delivery, a logistics company in Houston that specializes in regional trucking, heavy haul and national freight.