As a panelist at the Soundings Trade Only Leadership Summit prior to September’s IBEX show, I found it interesting that many of the audience’s questions were similar. The attendees wanted to understand how they could get employees to speak up and contribute ideas toward their organization’s success.
At the company I lead, Correct Craft, we try to create clarity related to our culture. We even have a “culture pyramid” that clearly identifies our important company values. One such value is “highly assertive — highly cooperative.” This means we expect people simultaneously to be highly assertive and highly cooperative, a combination that at first may seem impossible or at least counterintuitive.
However, the concept is actually very simple: We expect people to speak up and share their perspective while also
listening carefully to understand and consider the perspectives of others. When people violate this value and don’t speak up, we call it being a “silent liar.”
Being a silent liar is when you have a perspective to add, or you disagree with a teammate’s view, but withhold your thoughts. Silent lying is costly to an organization because it results in important perspectives not being considered. It is also one of the biggest problems at most organizations. The reason most people don’t speak up is not because they don’t care; it’s because they don’t feel safe doing so.
As a leader, one of your most important responsibilities is to create a safe work environment where the team can reach its potential. Many employees struggle to speak up when they do feel safe, so it follows that employees will absolutely remain silent if they feel unsafe.
If we don’t provide a safe environment, we may be able to drive short-term results, but we will fall well short of our team’s long-term potential.
In his must-read book The Four Stages of Psychological Safety, Timothy R. Clark does a great job of explaining how to create safety for your team, an effort that will improve employee input and your results. He describes four stages.
Stage 1: Inclusion safety. This comes from an employee feeling that she is truly part of the team. If an employee feels like she is on the “outside,” or doesn’t feel like she has really been included as an important member of the team, there is very little chance she will speak up. As leaders, we need to ensure that everyone feels as if they are an essential part of the team.
Stage 2: Learner safety. Our team talks all the time about the importance of being a “learner,” and this is a critical part of feeling safe enough to speak up. Having the freedom to investigate new ideas, try things out and even make mistakes will go a long way toward providing organizational safety for team members.
Stage 3: Contributor safety. This is having the autonomy to do your job within clear boundaries. In other words, doing your job without being micromanaged.
Stage 4: Challenger safety. This stage goes right to the heart of ensuring that you have no silent liars. Challenger safety provides employees safety to challenge authority without feeling as if their job is in jeopardy.
Without organizational safety, don’t even waste your time trying to get employees to speak up, especially when asking for thoughts contrary to the leader’s stated view. I highly recommend Clark’s book to any leaders, but particularly to those who want to benefit from more employee input.
OK, you’ve established organizational safety — what’s next? Here are four pathways to help ensure that your organization’s culture promotes employee input.
First, create clarity around the expectation of speaking up. An organization’s leader should ensure that everyone understands that giving input, even if it contradicts the boss, is expected. We have the “highly assertive, highly cooperative” expectation as part of our most important document, our culture pyramid, which is prominently posted around our business locations.
Next, make sure everyone has a chance to express his or her view. At most meetings, the extroverts are more likely to get their way because they are most likely to speak up. Introverts, who may want more time to process information, may need prompting to share their thoughts. Introverts likely make up half your team and are the ones most likely to process a situation more deeply, so be sure to create an opportunity or nudge them to speak up.
Third, affirm contrary views. When the momentum in a meeting seems to be going one way and a participant suggests a contrary view, you can often feel the air go out of the room. The team was moving toward a decision, and with one comment, that energy is lost. Many times, the group will band together to dismiss the new idea, particularly if the idea did not come from the leader. If the initial idea is good, it does not need to be discarded, but the new perspective should be affirmed, understood and considered.
Last, model the proper response. This may be the toughest, but also the most important, part of creating a safe space. If you are the leader, how you react to contrarian views — particularly to your own ideas — will mean more than anything else you can say or do. If the leader responds curtly or dismissively to a contrarian view, that response will significantly reduce the number of differing perspectives in future meetings. If the leader appreciates and works to understand the differing perspective, the team will feel comfortable speaking up in future meetings. As difficult as it can be sometimes, the leader must model the appropriate response to critiques.
Employees respectfully and politely sharing thoughts and perspectives is imperative for organizational success. The keynote speaker during the Soundings Trade Only Leadership Summit I mentioned, Balaji Krishnamurthy, went so far as to say that speaking your mind is the highest form of integrity. n
Bill Yeargin is CEO of Correct Craft and the author of Education of a CEO.
This article was originally published in the December 2021 issue.