Being an employee-owned company, leadership at StoneAge encourages people to speak up – “keeping it real” is what we call it, and it’s part of our Own It Mindset, which is our set of values and leadership principles. We work diligently to make it safe for people to speak up and keep it real.
I believe we do a decent job of creating a safe space for people to voice their opinions and concerns, but not everybody feels comfortable no matter what we do. Most of this fear is unwarranted, but we certainly have made mistakes, intentionally or unintentionally shutting people down or minimizing their comments.
If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that we need to be more understanding and open to other people’s ideas and opinions. Why? Because when people aren’t afraid to say what’s on their minds, it’s easier to create a healthier culture because people feel valued and heard. Leaders can make better decisions based on their employees’ feedback and insights. And when people share their ideas and concerns, it stimulates problem solving and innovation. All of these lead to more success for the company, its teams, and the individual.
So how do you go about doing this? Here are ten ways:
1. Ask “Get to Know You” Questions: The more curious and proactive you are, the easier it is to get people to open up. Ask casual yet pointed questions, getting to know your teammates. As you build these relationships, you will build trust, the foundation for getting people to say what’s on their minds.
2. Regularly Ask For Opinions: The more you ask people their opinions on workplace matters, the more comfortable they will be sharing. Try these questions: “I am considering making a change in this process. What do you think? Or, “I am not sure the best approach to this problem. What would you do?”
3. Listen Without Inserting Your Opinion: Listen carefully to what’s being said, not so you can respond, but so you understand. Refrain from jumping in with suggestions, rebuttals, answers, or judgment. The worst thing you can do for psychological safety is to make people feel judged when sharing their thoughts.
4. Think About Your Body Language: Some experts say that nonverbal communication accounts for over half of how we communicate. By crossing your arms, avoiding eye contact, puffing up your chest, rolling your eyes, or looking angry, you are sending messages that you don’t really want to hear what people are saying. So be mindful of this. Instead, sit back and relax, make eye contact, smile, and nod your head encouragingly.
5. Share Your Stories: Humans connect through stories, and if you open up about your worries, fears, and ideas, it will make it safer for others to do the same. This doesn’t mean you should hijack someone else’s story or only talk about yourself. There is an art to vulnerability, but it makes it easier for others to show vulnerability when you model this yourself.
6. Have Spontaneous Meetings: The best way to get people to speak up is to walk throughout your organization and ask your employees about their work, successes, and the challenges they had to overcome. People love talking about their work, especially when they can show and tell. In the era of WFH, you can do so something similar with virtual meetings. If they have time, I often ask someone to stay on after the meeting is over to tell me more about a project they are working on or something they said in the meeting. It’s not as smooth as ‘managing by walking around,’ but you’ll be amazed at what you find out.
7. Ask Others To Speak Up: No one wants to be the first to speak up, so to encourage your team to do so, ask someone you have a good relationship with to go first. “Bill, what do you think?” And then say, “What else? Nancy, how about you?” In high-stakes meetings, it doesn’t hurt to ask a few courageous, influential people within the organization to ask a few questions to get things started. You could also consider having employees submit questions anonymously ahead of an important meeting to answer them during the Q&A. I find this works well for town hall sessions.
8. Prove That it Pays to Speak Up: Always take action when someone is brave enough to speak up and use them as a role model for others. I had an employee speak up about the pay cuts during the first year of the pandemic, advocating for onsite employees to receive their full pay restatement first. We listened and took his recommendation. We rewarded his bravery with a gift card and public acknowledgment of the courage it took and the impact it had.
9. Ask For Feedback: Asking for feedback doesn’t always mean you will get it, but people will eventually come around if you keep asking. I say things like, “I know it’s not easy to give me feedback, but I truly want to improve my leadership skills. What’s one thing I could be doing better, even if it’s just a small thing?” When I get the answer, I ask for an example and ask a few questions to dig deeper. Always say, “Thank you, that was very helpful. Please, always feel free to let me know when I could do something better.”
10. Practice, Practice, Practice: It takes time to get people to open up, so don’t expect immediate results. Keep practicing, implementing these tips. You’ll get better with time, and once you establish that you don’t get defensive and that you will take action and reward those who share their thoughts, more people will open up.
Like this? Check out my blog on how to be more candid.