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,