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5 reasons employees aren't sharing their ideas


Dear Evil HR Lady,

I work for a great company! We have a culture that we've worked hard to establish and continuously improve .... we have an extremely low turnover rate and, for the most part, great feedback scores from our employees. Unfortunately, one of the things we seem to have an area of opportunity on is "employees feeling comfortable providing their opinion." What could be behind this? How can we ensure that employees feel that they can talk with us?

First of all, congratulations on creating a good culture with a low turnover rate. And I'm thrilled that you're looking into an area that you struggle with -- having your employees feel comfortable sharing their opinions. Here are 5 things to consider when attacking this problem.

1. Does there always have to be a person at fault? You want people to speak up, share ideas, and help your business succeed. But when things aren't perfect, is it accepted as a fact of life and plans are made to move forward, or does somebody have to be blamed?

2. Have you already made up your mind? When asking for opinions, people often already know what they want to do and are simply looking for validation. If that validation isn't immediately forthcoming, the ideas expressed are discounted without proper consideration.

3. Does the boss speak first? When tackling a new problem, does the boss present her solution first and then ask for ideas? Because that can set everyone up for just repeating back what the boss said. Especially if people who suck up are rewarded and those who push back are punished.

4. Is failure punished? When people make huge mistakes, it sometimes makes sense to punish them in some way. But there needs to be a stark difference between, "I got drunk and vomited over the copy machine," and, "maybe we should try doing A and B in order to increase revenue with clients X and Y." The latter deserves consideration. If it's implemented and doesn't work, you learn from the experience and go on. If, instead, the employee gets punished, he'll keep suggesting the status quo or what the boss wants.

5. Are you defensive or accusatory? If someone says, "I think we should change how we do X," is your immediate response, "What's wrong with the way we do it now?" And if someone says, "Darn it, the server is down," do you respond, "What did you do to it?!?!" Because both of those responses encourage people to keep their mouths shut.

If you want your people to speak up, you need to create an environment where things that are new and different aren't immediately rejected and mistakes are not the end of the world.

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