A series of Harvard Business Review articles looked at the phenomenon of “organizational silence”: Employees withholding information that could be of value to the organization. The researchers found that managers often under appreciate the tremendous cost of organizational silence. Many managers wrongly assume that if employees are talking to them then they must not be holding back on anything. But the researchers found that 42% of employees who spoke up about problems or offered ideas also withheld important information, for two primary reasons: they felt it was a waste of time or they feared the personal consequences. So what can a workplace do to encourage more open and honest communication? A few thoughts…
Suggestions boxes aren’t enough! Suggestions boxes or “open door” policies aren’t enough because they’re too passive. Managers (for that matter everyone) need to actively solicit feedback. Which means getting off one’s duff and asking open-ended questions that encourage dialogue. Creating regular coffee meetings where people can offer input will also help.
Actions speak louder than words. If people think it’s a waste of time to speak up it’s likely because they haven’t seen any follow through in the past. Of course not every suggestion is a great idea (have you seen an Adam Sandler movie lately?), but there still needs to be a timely and honest response to every suggestion employees (or customers) make so they can see that their suggestions aren’t getting sucked into a giant black hole.
Trust is the key to more honest communication. Great cultures are built on a foundation of trust. If trust is lacking in your organization you need to find out why.
Create a cone of trust. Those of you old enough to remember my favorite sitcom as a kid, Get Smart, you may recall the Cone of Silence. Okay, so you don’t need to become cone heads…but creating a safe space for confidential, intense conversations can help. Margot Willison, a manager with Shell Canada Energy, sent along her department’s idea for creating a safe space: they’ve created a Vegas Room, complete with a small slot machine and “Welcome to Vegas” sign. This safe space is reserved for emotional or difficult conversations, because we all know “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” And in recognition of the diversity in their group, they have hung a Chinese symbol that translates to “all who enter here is safe.” The idea has worked so well, it has spread to other departments.
Take personal responsibility. I frequently talk to employees who gripe about situations at work, but when I ask if they’ve brought the issue up with their manager or teammate the answer very often is, “Well, um, not really.” Everyone needs to take personal responsibility for bringing up concerns in a timely, honest and respectful manner. Maybe bringing forward the issue won’t fix things, but I guarantee you there’s a 100% chance that nothing will change if you assume the people around you are mind readers!
Inject more humor into your workplace. Numerous studies show that humor and trust go hand in hand: we trust people more who share a healthy sense of humor. And making it fun to share difficult information can help. Create a “whine and cheese” section in your meetings where people can bring forward issues in an exaggerated manner or add a “rumor mill” section to the agenda where people can safely bring forward rumors in a more playful manner: “So…the word on the street is…”.
Michael Kerr, January 2015. Michael Kerr is a very funny international business speaker who speaks on workplace culutre and humor in the workplace. www.MikeKerr.com
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