The 7 Reasons People Don't Say What They Really Think at Work

Whether you have control of a group or are a participant leading from the middle, if you're worried people aren't really saying what they think, make time for them. Ask them for their ideas and opinions. Then listen.
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As my wife and I sat in a London restaurant having a late breakfast, two men sat down for an early lunch. I was trying to stay focussed on my wife and my poached eggs, but the cafe tables were so close together, I couldn't avoid hearing their conversation. They were executives at a large technology company and they were flabbergasted at how long it took to solve an easy problem.

The first said, "Can you believe they waited a year to fix this?"

The second, "And now it only took a week?"

The first, "Read these emails: They've known about the problem, they just didn't tell anyone." He handed his colleague his phone.

The second, "At least it's fixed now."

The first retorted, "It's good it's fixed, but if they told someone it could have been done a year ago. Think of all the headaches we would have saved."

If you spend any regular time in organizations, whether your child's school committee or a global corporation, their conversation does not surprise you. We can, however, recognize the reasons our teammates and colleagues keep their opinions, best ideas, and conflicts to themselves. You are probably all too familiar with these challenges, and noticing where communication isn't happening is the first step to improving it.

1. They feel ignored or worse, stepped on

Whether the person is shy or a quiet-type, if they haven't been asked for their feedback, they won't offer it. If in meetings, the talkers who think out loud dominate conversations, the quiet folks who think before they talk don't get a chance to offer their perspectives. If the executives or managers have a tendency to squash other people's ideas, particularly in front of others, too many people simply don't want the hassle of saying what they really think.

2. Lip-service fatigue

If leadership says they are going to do something about a problem, and then they don't; and then people mention it again and they say, "Oh yes, we are on top of that," and nothing happens, teammates won't mention problems or needs in the future. Leaders who don't do what they say they are going to do won't get the true feelings or insights of their teams.

3. Painful past experiences

Your brain remembers the bad stuff. It saves those memories for the future so you don't get hurt again. When the alarm in your brain perceives a similar situation, it pulls the old memory in the form of a past voice, image, or feeling so you won't take a risk that could lead to danger. If you were yelled at in a meeting, belittled for a question or idea, or ganged up on when what you said was unpopular, it takes incredible focus to overcome the bad memories and speak up.

4. Oppressive Hierarchy

Hierarchy is often necessary. However, if an organizational structure puts the power in one or a few people's hands and those leaders ignore, step-on, pay lip-service, or create painful experiences, why would anyone tell the leaders bad news or risk sharing an idea that they fear will languish or not even be heard? When our organizations create patterns of behavior that promote people avoiding difficult or important conversations, very few people will have the energy or emotional confidence to fight the system.

5. Micro-management and nit-picking

There is nothing better than a leader or manager who says, "This is your project, let's talk each week to see how things are going, and if you need help, let me know." There is nothing worse than a manager who calls, texts, emails, and messages constantly asking how things are going. The only way to fend off a micromanager from nit-picking is to avoid them. That tends to shut down open communication.

6. No training

Different people need information presented in different ways. Different meetings have different expectations. For instance, presenting to the Board is very different than brainstorming with colleagues in your cube. If we don't teach the way we want communication to happen in different environments, people won't speak up. It's not that they don't have valuable content; they simply don't want to make a mistake delivering it.

7. Fear of Conflict

Not knowing how to communicate an idea is not the only kind of anxiety that stops people from speaking up at work. Most of us hate conflict. We didn't like it when our parents fought. We avoid it with our friends and partners. We don't trust the people who are looking for a fight, and if we can, we avoid it at all costs. The problem is that most conflicts have to be aired or they can't be resolved. Unfortunately, that truth only causes more fear without training, supportive leadership, a structure that promotes difficult conversation, and a culture that uses past experiences to grow, fulfills its promises, and gives everyone a chance to be heard.

This list is an assessment for your work environment, team, or Board. How do you fix these problems? First, be honest about where the communication is shutting people down. Then, one at a time, make small changes. It takes time to build people's trust. If you feel like you don't have power to make the changes, ask those that do to make small improvements, one at a time. It can take creativity and a number of attempts to promote more open communication, but it is almost always possible.

And, whether you have control of a group or are a participant leading from the middle, if you're worried people aren't really saying what they think, make time for them. Ask them for their ideas and opinions. Then listen. Really listening, you will be surprised what you will hear. And you won't have to wait a year to make whatever you do better.

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