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Leaders Want Input. Employees Won’t Share It. What Can We Do?

Dear Emily,

During our company meetings, leaders often try to get input on various questions but very rarely does anyone respond. It has become such an issue that the CEO recently offered $20 to anyone who contributes. That’s one issue. A second issue is that when nobody responds, leaders will often say something like, “Really?! Nobody has anything to say?!” This response doesn’t end up eliciting contributions, and I think it’s because it can feel like an attack rather than an encouragement. How would you handle this situation?

Silence Isn’t Golden

Dear Silence Isn’t Golden,

I commend the leaders in your organization for their desire to hear from their employees. We need more of that in organizations. I also empathize with their frustration. Whether in a group meeting or a one-on-one conversation, it can be intensely frustrating when you do your best to create a space for dialogue and you get nothing but blank stares (as anyone with teenagers can attest).

The challenge in this situation is that, when we get frustrated, we move of out dialogue. We say to ourselves, “I asked. I opened the door to conversation, and they said nothing. I have done my part.” They are in silence and we join them there. Alternatively, we get frustrated and move to attacking rather than encouraging dialogue, just as you have shared.

So, what to do? Here are four ideas to get started.

First, focus on what you really want. Is your goal to gather more meaning from your employees? Answer their questions? Fill up time in a company meeting? Check a box? Start by stepping back and identifying what it is you really want. If your goal is to solicit their concerns so you can address them, a company meeting is not the only way to do that. “Getting people to speak up with their concerns” is a different goal than “getting people to speak up with their concerns in our company meetings” and it will lead you to different solutions.

Second, ask why. What you describe above is a classic gap situation. There is a gap between what you are expecting or hoping for (employees to speak up) and what you are getting (employees staying silent). We face gaps between expectations and reality on a close to daily basis. And, like the leaders in your organization, we are quick to jump in with a solution. People aren’t speaking up? Let’s give them gift cards to encourage them. But when we jump in with a solution to close a gap, we err in a rather predictable way. We prescribe a remedy to close the gap before we diagnose what is causing the gap. We wouldn’t tolerate this approach (prescribing before diagnosing) from healthcare providers; and we shouldn’t tolerate it in ourselves either.

Before you try to come up with a solution to get people to speak up, take some time to understand why they aren’t currently speaking up. I believe people have an innate need to be heard. We want to share, contribute and connect. When people aren’t doing so, there is a reason. Do they feel uncomfortable in a large group meeting? Have they seen previous employees get teased for speaking up? Have leaders dodged tough questions in the past? I don’t know why the employees in your organization aren’t speaking up. From what you share in your question, I don’t think your leaders do either. Take time to ask why.

Third, share your good intent. For the most part, people will speak up when they feel safe to do so. One of the best ways to create psychological safety is to share your good intent. Why are you asking for their input? What will you do with it? Why is it important? You might say, “We’d like to open up some time now to hear from you. We know there are a lot of you on this call, and this takes time from each of you. But we think it is absolutely critical that we hear from you. You are the closest to our customers, our market, and a product. You have critical insights that we need to hear.”

One caveat: giving a leader this script won’t do a darn bit of good. Sharing my good intent is not going to create safety for employees in your organization. Your leaders need to share their own good intent, not what mine would be if I were in their spot. And they have to mean it.

Finally, wait. This was a crucial lesson I learned when I first started facilitating training programs. I would ask a question. No one would answer. I would start to feel uncomfortable and jump in with an insight and we would move on. When I did, I taught the participants in my workshops something—that they didn’t have to answer because I would.

Silence can be uncomfortable. It can be hard to wait for a response. But I learned that if I did, especially early on in a session, eventually someone would say something. I could wait the group out. I needed to show them that I really did want to hear them, and that I was willing to wait for them. Some people need a little time to think; others may just want to see if it really matters if they speak up. Either way, you may need to wait past the point of being comfortable if you really want to hear what someone has to say.

Sometimes it seems like so many people are shouting their meaning at us (on social media, cable news, etc.). We become accustomed to being flooded with people’s opinions and are losing the skills to encourage and elicit those opinions when not readily shared. I applaud your leaders for trying, and I think we can all do better at creating the conditions in which we can hear others.

All the best,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

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7 thoughts on “Leaders Want Input. Employees Won’t Share It. What Can We Do?”

  1. George R Wilhelmsen

    There are a lot of good points here.

    However, they may miss the elephant in the room – that leaders can be dismissive of such feedback, which is what kills the flow in the first place.

    To break down this erected barrier (and make no mistake about it – it’s a strong barrier), the leader has to admit fault – “In the past, I have asked for input, and then didn’t listen effectively. I pledge to you that I am going to change, and I need your help to do it. Hold me accountable if I do anything other than take the input and write it down. Feel free to tell me if I don’t meet this commitment I’m making to you.”

    Then ask the question and go quiet. Uncomfortably quiet. Have an easel with a pen in your hand. Write the problem on the top of the easel.

    And then wait.

    The suggestions will come.

    Now the important part: All the leader does is write down what is said. Paraphrasing is okay, but it is critical to capture the statement. Then ask “Did I capture that correctly?” If they say no, ask for feedback and fix it. Then wait for more statements.

    Don’t offer your opinions of “We tried that, it didn’t work” or anything similar, whether true or your perception. Allow the team to freely offer ideas, and write them all down. If you get more than a page, KEEP WRITING.

    When everyone is done, now is the time to discuss those ideas. Let the TEAM analyze / vette / discuss the concepts.

    All ideas are good, but let the TEAM run with this. Allow them to vote. Everyone gets 3 dots. You can put them on one or three solutions you think work best. All the dots are the same color.

    Then come back and recap: Here are the 3 (or whatever number) solutions we are going to pursue. We’ll need people to look at these – would anyone like to volunteer to take on or join each of these teams?

    Again, you wait. People will step up. It will help if you say “We’ll give each team a week to review the proposal and let us know why it is the best option, or after your analysis, why it isn’t the best option. This isn’t going to be piled on to your existing work – we’ll move deadlines so you can work on this with the right focus.” Then take those actions.

    I’ve done this, and it is very effective. And the Leader speaks last, and ONLY in support of the great ideas presented.

    So if you think you’re done, you are wrong. To repeat this, you’ll need to follow the same approach every time. If you slip once back to what caused their silence, you will have convinced them you have fallen back, and they’ll go back to the silence your management style engendered in the first place!

    Good luck.

  2. Rick Paradis

    It may also be worth considering alternatives to large group sharing and discussion. Perhaps have people discuss in trios or small groups first. Provide options for sharing the results of these small group discussions – for example, if you’re working online, ask groups to type in their highlights into a common whiteboard, add check marks to ideas they see and agree with. Make it about the ideas more than who raises them.

  3. ir. K.E. (Karel) van Zanten

    As an IT ‘test coordinator’ I tried to get the best plans, procedures etc. for the testers and the organization. So I composed a draft and we did a ‘quality review’ as described in the project management method PRINCE2. More specifically: we met with a group of 2 to 6 people, I read the draft aloud and every comment was noted. Then I processed the collected comments in a second draft. This underwent the same procedure.
    The result was that the participants saw and recognized that their comments were taken seriously. The second draft usually needed only minor modifications and then was fit for purpose. The document became the participants’ own document and commitment to what was in it was self evident.
    This approach worked with ‘underlings’ and with ‘higher ups’ (program manager, head of IT, head of software development, project manager, me and a scribe).

    Caveat: I work in The Netherlands. Dutch culture is different from US culture, or should I say NY, TX or CA culture.

  4. Joy Exstein

    Why not comment? Very simple – while some welcome comments, there can be repercussions, leadership gossip about what was said.

  5. Mary Parker

    It’s incredibly important to also plan for how you will handle any input. If people are brave and provide feedback, but are then attacked or disparaged for doing this, communication will be completely shut down. Sometimes, the best we can do is offer thanks for their insights. But, if you’re not willing to do something with the comments, then it is best to not even ask as that will destroy any credibility.

  6. Heather B.

    It may also be helpful to share a detailed agenda in advance and let staff know that the group will be discussing ideas/feedback/etc. This gives people time to consider what they would want to share, rather than potentially being put on the spot in the moment.

  7. Jason F.

    After asking for and receiving ideas and input, one of the worst actions a manager can do is take the input and make it sound like it was their (the manager’s) idea. This is demoralizing to the individual and team and causes even further shut-down in communication. People will shift back to work in silos and ‘protect’ their thoughts and ideas because of fear that others will take the credit for them. If someone has a good idea, bring the individual(s) in and let them lead the implementation of it; don’t try to implement other’s ideas. This builds confidence and makes people feel valued, heard, and part of the larger team.

    There is a saying that ‘good leaders always give credit to others when there is success and take blame when things go wrong’ — in other words, give credit where credit is due and take blame when there is a problem. In this case, the management team should be more vulnerable; be open and willing to take blame for poor communication within the team/company, not take credit for anything good, and give credit to individuals and the team for making changes that benefit the team, company, customers, other stakeholders, and maybe even the bottom line.

    And lastly, and maybe most importantly, make sure your words match your actions – if you lose this integrity, shut-down in communication will inevitably repeat itself.

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