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Are You Unintentionally Silencing Your Employees?

You need your people to be honest with you, but your efforts to create a 'culture of psychological safety' might be accomplishing just the opposite. Fortunately, a little science can fix this.

Leaders know they need input from their teams in order to create a transparent and impactful culture, and many have taken active steps to try to cultivate the psychological safety necessary for people with lower hierarchical power to share what they really think. From employee surveys to ‘Ask Me Anything’ town halls to telling people your door is always open, leaders are trying earnestly to cultivate speak up cultures.

But despite their best efforts, many CEOs experience continued frustration with employees not sharing candid perspectives. That organizational silence only enables harassment, maintains toxic workplaces, perpetuates white-collar crime and lowers market valuation. If leaders want that candid feedback, they need to create a culture that makes giving that feedback feel safe, and like it actually matters.

The failure of employees speaking up is often framed as a gap in skills or in mindset. When viewing it as a skills issue, companies often arrange for training employees in the areas of difficult conversations, feedback and communication. Having delivered a lot of those trainings, I see both the value and limitation of the approach. When viewed as a mindset issue, leaders try to tap into employees moral conviction to do the right thing.

But none of these analyses consider the pervasive and invasive role of silence on the team. Leaders can increase the likelihood employees decide it is safe and worth it to share candid feedback by unlearning how their own actions silence the people they lead.  Below are three ways leaders unintentionally silence employees – and what to do instead.

1. Expecting employees to meet on your terms.

“Let’s just get on a call.”

“Stop by my office on your way out.”

Each response is a CEO’s typically well-intentioned effort to expedite communication. After all, the mirror neurons in our brains that support empathy and relationship building are more active in person, and real time conversation provides insight into tone and responsiveness in ways that asynchronous text-based communication doesn’t. However, the medium in and time at which we communicate will either support employees, or silence them.

Leaders by default choose the communication mediums and timing that play to their strengths. This default poses a challenge to those who do not share the same strengths. When and how we chose to communicate limits who can be present, what costs people incur to be there, and whether the context plays to their strengths. Failing to actively design communication flows means the communication patterns default to those that benefit those with the most power in a system. Requiring people to communicate in your preferred medium inclines them toward silence by creating an additional hurdle to their communication.

Leadership expert Carey Nieuwhof notes that everyone has green, yellow and red energy zones of their day. Green zones are people can focus best and are most productive. Yellow zones are when you can accomplish things, but not your greatest things. Red Zones are when you’re tired and have difficulty concentrating. Meeting during someone’s green zone supports their voice. Meeting during someone’s red zone increases the likelihood they will be silenced or will choose silence.

If you don’t know what medium and time makes it easiest for an employee to share their perspective, ask them in your next one-on-one:

• What medium (typing, talking, asynchronous, real time, video, in person, audio-only) makes it easiest for you to share your candid perspective?

• What time of day would you say is your green zone?

There is no perfect time zone or medium, but awareness of employees different wiring allows leaders to reduce barriers to communication and optimize for voice.

2. Saying you want input when you really don’t.

Leaders face pressure to be inclusive, to consider different employee perspectives. But how and when we solicit input often undercuts the very efforts to solicit feedback. Consider Jacintha. Jacintha tells her team that she wants to hear what they have to say. Her team then spends time and energy trying to persuade her to extend the timeline on which a key project needs to be delivered. But because the timeline isn’t actually negotiable, Jacintha holds the line that there’s no flexibility and the team will have to deliver. Her direct reports feel unheard and unacknowledged. If “leadership” is going to do whatever they are going to do, why should we bother saying anything in the first place?

The disconnect in expectations undercuts trust and disincentivizes people from sharing their candid thoughts in the future. The narrative that leadership doesn’t care about employee feedback calcifies.

Businesses and teams cannot run on consensus, so it would only make sense that not everyone would be consulted or be a decisionmaker. Clear expectations about what is negotiable, and who will decide, consult, and be informed allows people to know where to spend energy. Telling someone you want their opinion when you don’t or when you’re not in a process to metabolize their input sends the wrong message. 

3. Not showing you welcome candid feedback.

Consider this example from one of my clients. In the 16 years of working together, the second highest ranking person in the organization never disagreed publicly with the CEO. If she had taken a stand, it had been in private. But she also admitted to me that she had never felt like she could oppose the CEO. If the second-in-command couldn’t disagree with the CEO, would could?

Silence breeds silence. Employees observe the actions of leaders to draw conclusions about how things are done. Leaders’ actions either disrupt or perpetuate employee silence.

If employees don’t see leaders in the C-suite offering candid feedback to each other and seeing that candid feedback is rewarded, employees continue to draw the conclusion that it’s not worth it to offer feedback. What is visible becomes culture.

As a CEO:

• Have you cultivated trusted relationships where people are willing, able and regularly disagree with you? If not, you’re likely cultivating a culture of groupthink where you are operating in a skewed sense of reality.

• When is the last time someone offered you candid feedback or disagreed with you publicly?

• If those conversations took place in private, how might you tell strategic stories about those conversations to signal to employees that those conversations are welcome on your team and in the organization?

Identifying how leaders unintentionally silence employees creates the opportunity to consciously choose different actions so you can get the candid feedback you need from your team.


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