Part of the power of having a team is that you get the benefit of multiple perspectives and ideas. But to really take advantage of that benefit, you need your staff to be willing to speak up and tell you what they really think – even if it’s different from your opinion or if it might be an unpopular thing to say.
Managers often assume that team members will speak up if they have a concern, a better way to do something, or a differing viewpoint. In reality, though, it’s very, very common for employees not to voice their thoughts freely – even when they’re working for a manager who genuinely would welcome it. There are a few possible reasons for that: Some of your employees may have worked for managers in the past who didn’t welcome candor or dissenting opinions. Others might worry that if they disagree with you, it could lower their standing with you or with the rest of the team. Others might believe that ultimately their opinions won’t matter much and may have internalized beliefs like “you don’t disagree with the boss.”
Sometimes managers think that it’s sufficient to issue a general call for team members to share their thoughts (“my door is always open” or “I always welcome input on what we’re doing”). But that often isn’t enough to combat the sort of ingrained beliefs above. Instead, if you really want candor from your staff – and you should! – you’ll need to be deliberate about creating the dynamics that will encourage people to tell you what they really think.
Here are five things you can do to get your team to be more candid with you.
1. Let other people offer their ideas or thoughts before you offer yours. If you’re the first to speak, others are less likely to share their own opinion it if differs. So make a point of giving others a chance to speak before you share your own thoughts. You can do that by simply hanging back and giving others the space to talk, or by specifically asking people to weigh in first (such as by going around the table at a meeting, with yourself last, or calling on people by name and asking for their thoughts).
2. Explicitly draw people out. Because it can be hard to speak truth to people in power, you may need to go out of your way to draw out employees’ opinions on thornier topics. Just asking “so what do you think about the X project?” might not be enough. You might get better results if you look for ways to make it easier for people to share their thoughts. For example, you can ask, “if this project ended up not succeeding as much as we’re hoping it will, why do you think that would be?” or “how do you think we could improve this?”
3. Don’t kill the messenger. Your staff will pay a lot of attention to how you respond when they come to you with a dissenting viewpoint. If you react defensively, shut them down, or seem to hold their viewpoint against you, they will quickly learn not to be as candid in the future. It only takes one or two negative reactions to end up signaling to people that they should be less forthright.
4. Make a point of being appreciative when people share dissenting viewpoints with you or deliver hard messages. Even if you disagree with the substance of what they’re saying, you want to reinforce the behavior itself. For example, it’s helpful to say things like:
5. Demonstrate humility. People will be a lot more likely to tell you when they disagree with you or have an alternate take on something if they see you admitting mistakes, acknowledging when you don’t know something, and generally not acting as if you have all the answers. If you’re comfortable being a bit vulnerable, people are more likely to make themselves vulnerable in return.