#572       Innovative Leader     Volume 12, Number 3                      March 2003

Why Your Team Won’t Tell You the Truth
by  Thomas J. Ucko

Mr. Ucko, of Ucko Affiliates (www.ucko.com), specializes in coaching leaders and their teams. He is author of Selecting and Working with Consultants: A Guide for Clients (Crisp Publications, Los Altos, CA, 1990).  

Can you afford to miss out on your people's best thinking? Or their full commitment? Your goals are in jeopardy when people hold back their contrary opinions, off-beat ideas, or disagreements with you as too risky to surface.

"Too risky?" you may ask. "Why, I encourage openness," you likely protest. "And I certainly don't intimidate people, or punish them for disagreeing with me. Why would they hold back?"

Why indeed? Why would anyone reporting to a reasonable and well-meaning manager hold back from saying the truth?

Why people hold back

For many people, speaking up to the boss is hard simply because he or she is the boss. Some people are naturally cautious, or perhaps have been burned in the past. Others may be culturally programmed to show deference to the boss and to avoid any possibility of criticism. And there is always the possibility that you, the boss, really will hold something against people who displease you, or speak uncomfortable truths. From the employee's point of view, why take the chance?

At a deeper level, we should also consider that some might not have completed the last few steps of the developmental journey from child to fully autonomous adult. As a result, they may unconsciously respond to bosses in the same way they responded to their parents or other authorities when they were children—seeking to please them, and to avoid their displeasure.

The boss's contribution

Finally, there is the possibility that you, the boss, inadvertently give out signals that it's not okay to disagree. This can happen in many ways, ranging from body language and facial expressions that convey criticism, to a failure to encourage the expression of differences.

I once interviewed the staff of a plant general manager who spoke of the GM's stated interest in creating a participatory atmosphere at team meetings. They described how Harry (not his real name) would stand at the flip chart and ask for their ideas. But as one of them went on to say, "After a while we noticed that he'd write down the ideas he agreed with, and pretty much ignore the rest. Eventually, we stopped giving him our ideas."

Helping your people to speak up

Let's assume you want to make the most of your staff's ideas and creativity. What can you do to encourage people to speak up? Here are several suggestions:

  • Raise the issue with your team.
    Tell them you understand why they might hold back. Encourage disagreement with your ideas, and commit to a policy of no retributions. By itself, this is not enough—your staff may not believe you at first—but it's a good start.
  • At staff meetings, save your opinion until last.
    If you hold your opinion back, others won't be as concerned about disagreeing with you.
  • Model openness.
    Self-disclosure is a powerful tool for encouraging openness in others. Reveal what you're thinking, and why. Share your plans and assumptions. Admit mistakes.
  • Get feedback from your staff and discuss it with them.
    Whether with the aid of a consultant or human resources specialist, or on your own, get staff feedback on your leadership style, and review the feedback with them.  This is a dramatic way of demonstrating your commitment to openness. Of course, you'll likely learn a few things about yourself as well.
  • Reward people who speak out.
    At staff meetings, recognize people who disagree with you or who raise unconventional ideas. Say, "Thanks Linda, for suggesting that."
  • Monitor yourself to see that you're walking the talk.
    Be alert to ways in which you might be sending mixed messages. Ask people for informal feedback. When you discover ways that you're discouraging open communication, make the needed adjustments, and tell your people you've done so.

Putting these suggestions into action is not easy. It takes a concerted effort to do things differently. But the payoffs are well worth it—a more open team atmosphere, more innovation, and higher quality results.

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