Communicating: Are Your Employees Afraid to Say What They Think?

The management meeting is coming to close. "Everybody on board with this?" you ask. "Any questions or concerns?" They nod in agreement to the first one. By the time you've gotten to the second question, most have already pulled out their phones to check email. It's a day or two later when you start to hear the rumblings. Maybe directly. Or, more likely, filtered through intermediaries. That's because the reality is that much of the time in business people don't say what's really on their minds.

That can be a very effective strategy. Selling a new business prospect, recruiting an employee, and speaking to the media are examples of interactions where you're likely to accomplish more by being strategic and very selective about what you say to accomplish your objective.

But internally, within your company, the greatest benefit will usually come from an environment where people feel free to speak their minds. When people don't speak up about what they really think, that often ends up working against the common goal of the company's success. Effective communications leadership comes from, first creating the environment where people feel free to express their opinions and, then managing the discussion and decision-making process so that the end result will be respected.

The reality is that, given the choice, most people would rather speak up and say what's on their minds. That's true in personal relationships as well as business. And in both cases, what often holds people back is fear of the consequences that come from saying what they truly feel.

In a corporate culture where people who don't automatically agree with everything that's said are quickly branded as "not a team player" or "difficult to work with," employees quickly get the message that there's only one acceptable answer to the question of whether or not they support a course of action.

A recent New York Times article on discord in the workplace noted that it's the leaders who set the behavior norms when it comes to communication in the workplace. When people see healthy communication at the office they're likely to mirror that behavior. And experience has shown the reverse is true as well: when there are no channels for healthy communication, the indirect back channels and office politics tend to gain more traction.

Are you really getting full-value from experienced employees if they're afraid to voice their opinions? Yes, companies are not democratic institutions and in the end, you--along with perhaps your partners or other senior executives--must make the final decision. You may not agree with everything your employees have to say, but demonstrating a willingness to listen and opening up the process that leads to your choices will usually lead to better understanding and acceptance of the decisions once they are made.