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Discovery Surveys, Inc.
Specializing in Employee Opinion and Customer Satisfaction Surveys
Improving the Workplace
EMPLOYEES ARE AFRAID TO SPEAK UP

By Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D. President, Discovery Surveys, Inc.

Half of all employees do not feel free to voice their opinions openly.

Part 1 - THE PROBLEM:

It's a sad commentary that about half of all employees are too scared to openly express their views at work. They don't speak up because of:

  • Fear of retribution - Many organizations foster a climate of "shooting the messenger" when any bad news is expressed by an employee.

  • Job insecurity - In today's layoff-happy environment, employees feel it is best to "keep their mouths shut" whenever possible.

  • A lack of management responsiveness - When they voiced their opinions in the past, no one listened, so why should they risk doing so again?

  • An uncaring organizational climate - Many feel like a mere cog in a big, uncaring machine with very little chance of being heard.

A lack of openness has negative consequences for both employers and employees. When employees don't feel free to speak up:

  • Important problems go undetected;

  • Good ideas are never surfaced;

  • Relationships between managers and employees deteriorate; and

  • Motivation declines because employees view their work as no longer worth their full psychological commitment.

Part 2 - WHAT CAN BE DONE?

  1. Senior Management Must Foster a Spirit of Openness.

    Ever notice the deafening silence when a senior manager asks a group of employees if there are any questions? Why does this happen? In the past many employees have witnessed that others were ignored, belittled, or embarrassed when they spoke up.

    Senior managers must consciously try very hard to ask for opinions and then listen carefully. Doing so will increase the probability that their direct reports will be more likely to be open to new ideas as well.

  2. Get Rid of Suggestion Boxes.

    There is no better way I know to stifle openness than to tell employees to "stuff" their suggestions in a box. The use of such a policy clearly signals to employees that voicing their suggestions openly to their manager or senior management would be unacceptable or ineffective.

  3. Train Yourself and Managers How to Listen.

    Listening is a critically important management skill that can help improve employees' willingness to speak up. Some of the key principles (explained more fully in my free article: 10 Techniques for Getting Employees to Talk) are listed below.

    • Use unconditional positive regard. - Try not to rush to evaluate opinions and suggestions. View all of them with a positive outlook.

    • Dummy up. - Use the technique made famous by "Columbo" of continually asking questions and telling employees that you "don't understand" or "are confused."

    • Avoid threatening questions like "Who told you to do it that way?" and "Who is responsible?" that will restrict the type of responses you will receive.

    • Be an active listener. - You must be fully psychologically engaged when listening to employees by maintaining eye contact, nodding your head at the appropriate times, and saying things like "I see," and "uh-huh" in response to their words.

    • Use open-ended questions such as "Could you please tell me more about that?" or "How would you handle this problem?"

    • Use restatements. - Simply repeating or paraphrasing what an employee has just said will typically encourage him or her to continue speaking.

Can a spirit of openness be improved? The answer is yes. However, it will take time and consistent effort by senior managers and supervisors.

I am very much interested in your views on this topic.
Please reply with your comments and suggestions to .

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