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How To Help Your Teams Speak Up

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

Ever had that strange feeling in a team meeting, after sharing some difficult news or an upcoming change, that no-one actually speaks their mind? Did you ever experience that awkward silence after asking for feedback on a strategy or process improvement you thought of? Such moments are even harder to bear these days as we are all working remotely and you can’t see people’s immediate reaction behind a camera off and a mute button.

As a manager, I always looked at ways to ensure my team felt comfortable speaking up their mind, both in forums and in one-on-one meetings. On the one hand, I saw this as the best way to gather feedback on the actual challenges they were facing, pick their brains on what could be effective solutions and have a chance at drafting a strategy which was in touch with the reality. On the other, I quickly noticed that whenever people were not feeling safe or allowed to speak up, they would just “speak under”, meaning the real conversation would move into informal environments with negative consequences on people’s engagement.

Hearing my team’s constructive feedback or objections to an approach or decision I or the company made hasn’t always been easy. But it has always been worth it. I didn’t know at the time, but research shows there can be a financial impact on a company’s bottom line when employees are not speaking up, with estimated losses ranging from $7,500 to $50,000 yearly. 

So how can you, as managers, avoid this negative impact and ensure your team members feel comfortable in sharing their concerns and perceived risks about a topic? Here are the steps I take to enable others to speak-up.

1. Create a “judgement-free zone”

Whether physical or virtual, the purpose of such a zone is to safely contain any unfiltered thoughts or feelings that people want to share. The only rule of the zone is that everyone adheres to the principles of mutual respect and passes no initial judgement on what has been shared. To break the ice, start by asking the question What should be happening vs. what is currently happening? Assign the informal leader of the team to be the guardian of these principles and gently raise a flag when they observe the answers might be breaking the rule.

2. Apply the discernment filter

Once all concerns, feelings, and any other thoughts are shared, it’s time for everyone to take a step back and apply a discernment filter to separate fact from subjective judgement. Helpful questions to ask here are What are my assumptions about …. and what do I know for sure? and What are the real roadblocks or concerns? A curious mindset and active listening are key ingredients at this point in time.

3. Brainstorm on possible actions

Once you have the main facts and real points of concern, it’s time to get creative and find out what, if anything, can be done about it. What can we do or change?, How can we adapt? or Who can help us? are questions that can drive the solution-oriented approach. Still, if the immediate answer seems to be nothing and no-one, curiously go back to the second step and check if this is indeed a fact or a subjective assumption.

In a nutshell, if you are nervous about sharing a topic in an upcoming meeting, or if you notice that awkward silence and low engagement from the team after making an announcement, know that it’s time to help people speak up. As with any new approach, practice makes perfect and you might not get it right the first time. Be kind to yourself and try again. You know it’s worth it.

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