Encouraging Employees to Speak Up
Good communication is the lifeblood of every organization, no matter the size, industry or geographic location. When that communication is positive and effective, employees feel secure in their jobs and confident they know "what's going on. Therefore, they tend to be more alert, more concerned about their job and their company, and more productive. And increased productivity leads to increased employee satisfaction. That's a win-win situation for everyone!
On the other hand, when communication is ineffective, employees often feel uncared for, underappreciated, left out of the loop and disconnected from the mainstream. In these cases, morale, achievement, employee satisfaction and productivity can all tumble, while griping, lack of concern for their jobs and, at times, sabotage, can occur.
So what can you do to ensure a more positive, effective flow of information between you and your employees? Many entrepreneurs believe they're open to ideas and comments from their employees. Many have a so-called "open door" policy that hopefully allows and encourages people to stop in and chat, share a gripe or seek information. But does it really? How can you tell?
First, start by asking yourself if your employees really feel comfortable talking to you. The best way to figure this out is by looking at the number of people that stop by your office to talk. Are they from all levels of your company? With what frequency do they come to your office? Do only the high performers or the managers show up? If so, something's not working--somehow the message you're sending is saying that you welcome only certain employees.
Next, even if only a favored group of people drops in to visit, look at the ratio of positive to negative comments and questions that are raised. If all or most of the discussion is positive, you must ask yourself and others if the atmosphere or corporate culture allows for disagreement or questioning. Do these people believe it's okay to raise tough questions and discuss challenging issues with you? My guess is you may find the answer is no.
"Group think": That's the formal name for the process whereby a group or team is reluctant to challenge the leader, thereby presenting the image that all is well, even if it's not. Post Watergate, many of the imprisoned burglars and planners said they knew the plan was problematic but that no one was able to give negative feedback to President Nixon. To what degree does this concept sweep though your organization? Group think is, after all, a common ego boost for the boss who's proud of his or her own leadership style. The absence of negative feedback or challenges from others can easily lead you to believe that your thoughts are supported and validated by others.
As you can see, unknowingly--or even despite the best intentions--leaders can discourage open communication. So what can you do to free up communication to more of your employees and in a more realistic manner that allows both positive and negative messages to be exchanged?
Your first option is to invite a random group of people from different departments and from different hierarchies into your office, a conference room or other open area. You can either create an agenda for these sessions with input from the invitees, or you could have open sessions where people discuss topics of their choosing or ask you spontaneous questions. You could also can hold theme-based sessions on topics of concern such as morale, salary, productivity, benefits, career opportunities, and so on. Whatever the topic or approach, always serve something to eat and drink to "break bread" with your employees and create a welcoming atmosphere.
Another idea is to hold larger meetings on a monthly or quarterly basis to which you invite all employees. Questions can be verbal or written down and handed in ahead of time. (The latter is preferred when employees want anonymity.) While this larger format doesn't provide the opportunity to meet with people in an informal forum, it at least provides your employees with access to you and gives you the opportunity to present the image you want them to perceive. By taking the time to meet with your employees on a regular basis to listen to their questions and comments in a positive manner and respond with respect, you'll be demonstrating and building the very atmosphere you're hoping to create, an atmosphere that says, "I'm interested in what you have to say" and "I'm the type of leader you can rely on to hear your concerns and then act on them."