The Real Reasons Your Team Isn’t Telling You What They Think

Jul 23, 2015
6 Min Read

Managers often say that they want candid input from their teams – but then act in ways that virtually ensure they won’t get it. That’s bad for you as a manager, because it means that you might not hear about problems in time to easily fix them, won’t get input that could help you make better decisions, and could even lead to trouble retaining your best people.

The tricky thing about this, though, is that it can be hard to recognize how you’re creating this dynamic. So here are some of the most common ways that managers inadvertently discourage candor on their team – as well as how you can steer clear of these traps.

1. You say you want candor but then get defensive or punish the messenger. Ever worked for someone who paid lots of lip service to the idea that all opinions were welcome and appeared to encourage dissent, only to lash out at people who tried speaking up? If so, you probably saw what happened: People quickly learn to ignore the lofty talk about candor and instead keep their opinions to themselves. Most people will pay less attention to what you say than to what you do – so how you react when someone disagrees or pushes back on your ideas will have a huge impact on whether people continue to share their real thoughts with you or not.

2. You take feedback well, but you favor team members who always agree with you. This one is a little more subtle than #1, but people will pick up on it over time: You might take feedback beautifully, even express genuine appreciation for it. But if you have a pattern of favoring the yes-men on your team – giving them more of your time, attention, and approval and maybe even the best assignments (because they don’t challenge you and thus are easier to work with), you’re signaling that if people want to advance under your leadership, they need to spout the party line.

3. You don't model candor yourself. If your team never sees you take risks with your own boss – for instance, you never push back on priorities or strategies even when your team knows you disagree – they’re likely to take their cues from you. On the other hand, if they see that you’re willing to advocate a point of view even when it’s not in sync with your own boss’s, they’ll be more likely to trust that you’ll try to resolve issues that they themselves speak up about.

4. You assume that not hearing disagreement means that people agree with you. If you propose an idea at a meeting and ask for people’s thoughts and hear nothing but a positive (or neutral) response, don’t be quick to assume that everyone’s on board. Some people may have reservations that they won’t share unless you go out of your way to draw them out. Try saying things like:

  • “What are the downsides/challenges with this?”
  • “If you had to poke holes in this, what would you say?”
  • “If this ended up not working, why do you think that would be?”
  • “I’m not 100% sold that this is the way to go, so would really like to hear other perspectives on it.”

If you haven’t deliberately created an environment that welcomes candor and makes it safe for people to speak freely, you can’t assume that they are. Spend some time drawing people out, reward them for voicing difficult opinions (with sincere gratitude and public praise for pushing back, even if you ultimately don’t agree), and you’re more likely to hear what your team really thinks about things.

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