3 Reasons People Don’t Speak Up

Communication is a two-way street.

Leaders: That means you don’t get to do all the talking.

If leaders were listening and asking for input more often, all kinds of problems could be avoided. People on the front line recognize problems long before they bubble up to managers and senior leaders.

As a result, leaders often ask “why didn’t someone tell us sooner?”

It’s a good question. Some leaders may not like the answer.

People don’t tell you because you’ve signaled that you don’t want to know. Or, perhaps, that you want to know… but you’ll only accept the information from another source.

Here are three common reasons the folks on the frontline aren’t offering input more often. They believe:

1. My Opinion Isn’t Valued.

  • If you are verbally saying you value input, make sure your actions match your words. Are you truly open to diverse points of view?
  • If you aren’t asking for opinions, it seems you don’t want them. Most people have input but will wait for your invitation before offering it.
  • If you are abrupt or rushed when talking to others, if you are only tuned in for passing-by levels of conversation, it won’t seem that you can be bothered with others’ opinions.
  • If you spend more time justifying your own way than considering others’ ways, then it will look like you don’t really want input.
  • If you are dismissive in your tone or impatient with others, they’ll assume you just can’t be bothered with what they could offer.

2. Expressing My Opinion May Lead to Criticism, Ridicule or Retribution.

  •  If you want people to give you feedback, you have to be open to it. A negative reaction has a ripple effect because, as a leader, everyone is watching how you respond. As a leader, your responses are seen as much bigger than you may intend them to be. Everything you do is magnified by your position, so proceed with caution when reacting to others’ input.
  • If you react defensively, you’ll shut people down. It took courage to share with you, and your negative reaction tells everyone else that it’s not worth the risk of sharing.
  • If you raise a cynical eyebrow, roll your eyes or use other negative body language then people will feel criticized and minimized. Keep a poker face until you hear and process the full feedback.
  • If you respond in any way that affirms the fear that “bad news killed the messenger” then you can be sure no more messengers will be forthcoming with you.

3. Why Bother? Nothing Happens When I Speak Up.

  • If you don’t follow up when people bring their concerns to you, they’ll eventually determine that you don’t really care.
  • If you promise to follow up on problems surfaced, at least give people updates on the progress made or the obstacles encountered. When you don’t, you erode your own credibility.
  • If you don’t explain why you’ve gone a different direction than others suggested, they’ll assume you made a mistake and — worse yet — you didn’t take them seriously.

The amount of input you get from your team is directly correlated to what you deserve to get. If you want input, you need to seek it out and treasure it. Appreciate it when people share information with you. Validate their courage when they bring you critical feedback. Respect and dignify opinions even if you don’t agree with them. Work hard to avoid a condescending attitude when someone says something dumb (after all, there was a time you didn’t have all the answers either). Take the time to gather input, consider it and explain what you’ve done with it.

If you want people to speak up, genuinely encourage them to do so.


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For Leaders, What Does Caring about Others Look Like?

I know a leader who doesn’t care about her staff.

She genuinely believes that workplace relationships should be all business. She doesn’t talk about her family, her hobbies, her past or her personal life. She doesn’t ask others about theirs. She compartmentalizes her life, and she wishes everyone else would do the same.

A few members of her team are okay with this. They stick to business-only conversations and understand that even the most innocuous questions like “how was your weekend?” are to be avoided.

Most of the team, however, feel this leader is uncaring. Several have left for this reason alone.

In the context of leadership, what level of caring about others is appropriate? Necessary?

The word “care” is one of those words that can easily be misunderstood. When we use words to mean one thing and they are received by others to mean something else, the risk for misunderstanding and conflict is significant.

The standard synonym for care is concerned. The dictionary defines care as being concerned about; to have thought or regard for another. A lesser used definition is to have a liking, fondness or affection for another. I’m not sure this encompasses what I intend when I use the word care.

In business relationships, there is a special need to be clear about caring. Everyone expects leaders to care for the people they work with. But the interpretations of what a leader should do to show that care can vary dramatically. That’s why this leader had chosen the extreme of avoiding all personal connections.

Does taking care of mean watching over and being responsible for someone? I have had people in the workplace who have expected me to take responsibility for them. That doesn’t seem appropriate to me, given that I strongly believe leaders should promote autonomy and develop greater levels of capacity in others.

Does caring for someone mean showing concern for them? Perhaps. But that concern can easily become more personal than professional. I’ve worked with leaders who get enmeshed in others’ lives to the extent that they are no longer viewed as leaders.

What’s missing from the standard synonyms and definitions, in my opinion, is this word: Understanding. One of the best ways we can care about those we work with is to understand each and every one of them as an individual.

This means taking pains to put ourselves in others’ shoes. It means stretching beyond our own perceptions so we can interpret what’s happening from the perspective of another person. It means empathizing. Understanding or comprehending what someone else feels and believes and is motivated by gives us an opportunity to care about them in a much more meaningful manner.

You see, when you care about someone you can remain aloof and distant at the same time. You can suppress or never recognize what really matters to the person you care about.  By contrast, when you understand someone you will be sympathetic to that person’s real, underlying interests.

Let me give you an example from my own personal life, the one I shared with this leader to help her move beyond the limits she had set.

I have always cared about my sister, Amy. I’m sure she has always cared about me, too. For various reasons, we went many years without being close to each other despite that mutual care. Only in the past few years have we attempted to understand each other. Understanding is a whole lot harder than caring. Understanding requires effort. It requires setting aside our egos and judgments. Understanding forces us to care in entirely different way. When I merely cared about my sister, I’d roll my eyes and dismiss certain things that bothered her. But now that I understand where those thoughts and beliefs come from, I genuinely want to avoid situations that aren’t comfortable for her. I no longer press her on certain issues, ask certain kinds of questions or judge decisions that she makes in the same way. She’s trying hard to understand me, too. I can tell because she makes similar types of accommodations for me. That makes me feel so much more cared about than anything else she’s ever done for me.

In practical terms, understanding Amy means I respect and acknowledge what she values. Instead of dashing off a quick e-mail to wish her a Happy Birthday this year, I sent her a card and nostalgic gift with a personal sentiment. I had to plan ahead to get that in the mail on time. I called her to honor her special day. I didn’t treat it as just another day (which is how I view most of my own birthdays). I didn’t project my feelings that a card is just a formality, forced on us by a smart marketing company. Nope. I looked at her birthday through her eyes and enjoyed doing something that put a smile on her face.

The best part is that this whole understanding thing isn’t that difficult. It’s interesting and engaging. It has opened up our relationship to all sorts of possibilities. The same is true in leadership and business. Being open, seeking to understand, and looking for common ground is a way to appropriately express how much you care. And it’s not nearly as uncomfortable as the undefined and ambiguous “caring” seemed to be for this leader.

Leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Leaders need to connect with people by understanding them. To be a leader, you have to love ’em or you’ll lose ’em. Loving them starts by understanding.

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5 Differences between Leaders and Parents

I know a leader who mothers and smothers the people she works with. She thinks she’s helping them, but she’s not. In actuality, she’s compromising their effectiveness.

She’s popular with some employees because she “takes care” of them. The don’t make any decisions without consulting her first. They mistrust others who give them less “support” and those who challenge them to make their own decisions. They rely on her to champion their causes and carry forward their complaints.

Other employees avoid her because they feel she can be too controlling. Some have experienced backlash when they did not return her “care” with expected loyalty. Having accepted favors from her, they later learned they were expected to back her up and defer to her preferences. They found themselves ostracized when they did not comply.

The ones she “protects” give up more than they realize. Over time, they lose their own voice. They no longer seem to have their own opinions, and they wouldn’t express them if they did. They become increasingly dependent on her and lose others’ respect when they won’t make their own decisions. They don’t grow professionally.

This leader describes her style as motherly. She believes that her style balances out the business-like tone of her department, staffed mostly by men who think it’s important for people to experiment, fail, learn and try again. As they are aiming for enablement, her balancing act serves as disablement of people.

In any workplace, there are necessary differences in how we lead people vs. how we would parent people. This leader would contribute to the creation of a stronger team if she would recognize these five differences:

1. Leaders help people discover and use their own voice. Parents speak up for their young children when they need an advocate. Leaders intercede as infrequently as possible, preferring to coach from the sidelines as employees speak up for themselves and what they believe.

2. Leaders encourage autonomy. Parents nurture their children for ever-increasing independence. Leaders in the workplace treat employees as autonomous, capable, independent adults. This is the starting point, not an eventual goal. Neither parents nor leaders (in healthy settings) work to create dependence.

3. Leaders don’t keep people “under their wing.” While mentoring or onboarding employees, there may be a period of time when a leader guides an employee. There is a limit, though, to this protection. People deserve the right to fly free and ought to be enabled to do so.

4. Leaders don’t coddle people. Parents may be indulgent and over-protective at times. Leaders shouldn’t be. People need to understand the consequences of their actions and should have the opportunity to learn from mistakes made. Making excuses and teaching others to externalize blame isn’t helpful to them.

5. Leaders don’t expect blind loyalty. Granting favors and extending protection to people is one thing. Doing it with the expectation that they owe something in return is a power play. It’s destructive and demeaning. Leaders shouldn’t conduct shake downs. Parents may be entitled to blind loyalty, but leaders aren’t. Leaders earn it by building people up, not by holding them back.

Leadership isn’t a power trip. Leaders need capable people who are continually growing, not sycophants who have been manipulated to be servile. To be a leader, you have to love ’em or you’ll lose ’em. Loving them doesn’t mean parenting them… It means truly leading them with a heart for doing right by them.

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5 Tips for Being a Human Leader

I know a leader who is doing everything right and losing his people because of it.

This leader might more aptly be described as a manager. After all, leaders have followers… And he doesn’t. The only thing being followed on his team is the rule book.

This senior manager takes comfort in the rules and boundaries and policies and procedures and protocols he’s established. He delights in having clear and inviolable rules. His authority, he thinks, is the sum total of all these rules.

As you’d expect, others view him as rigid and uptight. He considers that assessment to be a compliment.

The problem is that his rules and rigidity get in the way of his workplace relationships. By putting policies before people, he is alienating his team.

Rules are meant to provide a framework. Sure, some rules must be absolute. But most should be guidelines. For example, rules that stem from employment law must be abided by so there are no legal violations. But rules pertaining to expense allowances could be flexible depending on the situation.

Recently, this manager denied a reimbursement because an employee exceeded the daily hotel and meal allowance while on a business trip. The trip necessitated staying in downtown Manhattan where virtually no hotels and restaurants could be found within the allowed daily totals. Typically, this employee and her colleagues travel only to mid-size Midwestern cities where those allowances are adequate. It seems an exception would be reasonable. But this manager does not believe in making exceptions.

The same manager is unyielding when it comes to filling out forms. He’s a real stickler for precision, and he fears being audited. He doesn’t allow cross outs or white out on any form submitted (which are all produced by hand with no soft copy form available). When mistakes are made, employees have to start over. These forms are complex and detailed. They take a lot of time. And they must be perfect.

In his former job, this manager worked at a Fortune 100 on the East Coast. The dress code, hierarchical structure and workplace relationships were very formal. For over five years now, he’s been working on the West Coast in an environment that is much more relaxed. Most people wear jeans. There is no formality in the hierarchy. But he continues to wear a suit to work every day and to insist that people follow the chain of command. He doesn’t particularly care that he looks and acts differently. In his mind, this is the “right” way to do things.

He’s been advised to loosen up. He’s had a 360-degree assessment that clearly spelled out why he’s losing people. He just can’t grasp that being “right” could be wrong.

These 5 tips could help him find a balance between doing the right thing and doing what’s right.

1. Realize there are few absolutes. It may feel murky to operate in the gray area, but that’s where relationships are formed. Taking time to evaluate unique situations shows empathy and concern for individuals. Refusing to do so suggests that people are not valued.

2. Put people before policies and processes. Most rules are established to protect and help people. When the rules negatively impact people, it may be time to take a second look at them. Rules are never meant to become a bludgeoning force that prevent people from doing their work effectively. When people are surfacing issues related to existing policies and procedures, take the time to listen and understand the impact.

3. Don’t use formality as a shield. Over-relying on the rule book is lazy. It’s also cowardly. If all we needed were rules, why bother employing managers? If most of your work time is spent on policing people and enforcing rules, something is wrong. (Hint: it’s probably not the people.) Dressing formally, speaking formally, conducting business with your own team formally… All these are a sign of separation when they don’t fit the environment. Leaders don’t seek ways to separate themselves. Instead, they find ways to connect.

4. Be human. Who wants to work with a robot? While predictability and consistency have their place, they shouldn’t override human discernment and evaluation of unique variables. Being human requires connecting with people, human-to-human, and engaging enough to understand a given situation and the people involved. Being human requires being vulnerable and maybe even making mistakes. Worth noting: not humanizing the workplace is a very big mistake, so the trade off here is not as big as it seems.

5. Don’t assume the worst about people. We all live up or down to the expectations of others. Assuming that people will take advantage of flexibility is cynical and unfair. Treating people like they are thieves when they exceed the per diem reflects poorly on the manager himself. Erecting barriers to avoid workplace relationships telegraphs that people are not worth your time and interest. Give people grace, the benefit of the doubt, your support… And you’ll get theirs in return.

Leadership isn’t a solo act. Leaders need people, and people need leaders more than they need rule-abiding managers. To be a leader, you have to love ’em or you’ll lose ’em.

CONNECT 2 Lead graphic smalThe CONNECT2Lead Blog and training programs are products of People First Productivity Solutions. We build organizational strength by putting people first. If you’d like to read more in the Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em Series for Leaders, subscribe to the CONNECT2Lead Blog RSS Feed.

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