Leadership can be pretty tough. You’ve got your own manager telling you what to do, and now your team are starting to speak up, complaining about things going wrong in the team.
If only they’d be quiet and let you get on with your job. It’s hard enough without people speaking up and causing trouble all the time.
If you’ve had thoughts like this, then you’re not alone. Many leaders I speak to admit to this from time to time. Let’s reframe those thoughts and remind ourselves why it’s a great thing when our team starts to speak up.
Good Things to Remember When Your Team Starts to Speak Up
There are a few good reasons why a team that speaks up is a really good sign. Your team might be complaining, offering ideas for improvement or asking you to clarify things.
Whatever the case, let’s look at a few of them now. Use these points as a helpful reminder that if people are speaking up… you might be on the right track!
1. Speaking Up Means Your Team Believes In You
When your team members are complaining or offering suggestions, they are speaking up because they believe you can help. Even if they have a nagging doubt that you might not be able to do anything, at least they are willing to give it a try.
You won’t be able to fix every problem in your workplace, but knowing about them is a good start. When your team members tell you what’s broken, you can try to fix it.
When a team stays silent and won’t speak up for you, this is an issue. They may have already lost hope that you can actually do anything to help them.
2. A Team That Speaks Up Is Showing Trust In You
If your team thought you were incompetent, a tyrant, or a massive A-hole, then they most probably wouldn’t speak up. Instead, they’d likely stay silent and keep their heads down.
When your team speaks up, they are showing trust in you. They trust that they won’t get in trouble for speaking up, and that you won’t run around telling everyone what they said.
Trust is huge in a team. So when your team are starting to open up about issues and suggestions, you may just be on the right track.
Learn More: Why Building Trust Is Better Than Authority.
3. Speaking Up Shows You What the Problems Are
Especially when leading a new team, it can be hard to know where to start. When your team members start to speak up and let you know about issues or ways you could work better, this is gold.
Your team members are actually providing you with an opportunity. If you fix some of their issues or implement their suggestions, you show that you value their opinions and you can build trust.
4. A Team That Speaks Up Highlights Misunderstandings
Sometimes when we lead teams, we think everything makes sense. We think responsibilities are clear and everyone knows what to do. We think people understand our vision and direction.
The reality may be very different. So when people speak up and let us know where they are confused, frustrated or in conflict with others in the team, this shows you where you need to focus your communication.
This can help you to clarify roles and responsibilities and set clear expectations. These are key ingredients to being able to hold your people accountable.
Learn More: 4 Reasons Why You Can’t Hold People Accountable.
How to Encourage Your People to Speak Up
To unlock all these benefits, we really need our team to be speaking up. We want their suggestions, issues and concerns so we can do something about them.
After all, if your team are not opening up to you, they are probably telling someone else. This could be a bit of a problem for your leadership reputation in the workplace!
1. Encourage Your Team to Speak Up By Involving Them
It may sound obvious, but your team probably won’t speak up if you don’t involve them in how the team runs. If you do all the planning and come up with all the ideas by yourself, they will feel left out.
You can involve your team in planning discussions, conversations about roles and responsibilities or even specific conversations about how to improve the team.
If your team members aren’t used to this, you may find it awkward at first. They may not open up, because you’re “the boss”. Over time, however, they’ll loosen up a bit when they see that you really *want* their feedback!
2. Be Available and Present For Your Team
If you want people to speak up and engage with you, you need to make yourself available. If you’re one of those busy leaders who is in meetings all day, this can be a challenge.
Set up specific meetings with your team to invite their input, or book time during the day where you allocate yourself to being available for your team. Of course, you need to stick to these bookings for this to work effectively!
When you do meet with your team members, it’s important to be present in the conversation.
At the time of writing this, I have my smart phone, my smart watch and a laptop with me. You know what this means? Huge opportunities for interruptions and distractions!
Be smart with your devices. Turn them off, or put them into silent mode so you can give your undivided attention to your team. Being distracted in front of your team members simply shows them that you aren’t really interested.
Learn More: Too Busy at Work? Try These 5 Things.
3. Create a Safe Space
Sometimes team members are reluctant to speak up about team problems. They might feel like they’ll get in trouble or be seen as the real problem.
Your job is to convince them that this is not true. If your team are scared of opening up, you need to gradually build trust and encourage them to come forward. After all, it’s the only way you’ll be able to help.
There are a few ways to create a safe space in your team, but it can take time. After all, trust usually builds over time by showing consistent behaviour.
To create a safe space for your team to speak up, try the following:
- Use different forums: Not everyone likes to speak up in a big meeting. Meet your team members 1 on 1, and in different settings. It could be over lunch or coffee, at a cafe, which can feel more informal and away from the workplace.
- Stay away from blame: If people see you laying blame, they’ll become fearful. You need to show them that blame is not what you’re interested in. Reiterate your real objective, which is to help the team improve.
- Keep asking: If you ask for input, tentative team members may not speak up. That’s OK. Don’t give up, just keep asking. Eventually they’ll realise you really do want to hear what they say.
- Communicate Calmly: When you engage with your team, communicate calmly and in a non-threatening manner. Emphasise that team problems are common and a normal part of work. Then make it clear that you need help to solve them and improve the team.
Creating a safe space is critical for team members to speak up. It may take time, but eventually your safe space will be valued by your team.
4. Encourage People to Speak Up By Being Direct
Sometimes, we need to push buttons more directly to get people to speak up. I wouldn’t recommend this as your first option, but if you’re finding your team members aren’t coming forward, it could be worth a try!
Sometimes if you can tell a team member is frustrated but isn’t speaking up, try probing them with direct questions. You can try some of these sentences, depending on the situation:
- “In the meeting the other day, you looked pretty angry. What’s the issue?”
- “You seem like you’re unhappy with <something>. If you tell me what it is, I might be able to help.”
- “How are you and <person> getting along at the moment?”
- “I saw you working pretty late the other day. How’s your workload going at the moment? Anything we can take off your list?”
If people don’t respond to your questions, you can try probing further by noting your observations about how they’ve been acting. Then be sure to explain that the only way you can help is if you know about the problem.
Getting your team to speak up about issues or suggestions can be hard. Your team needs to trust that you have their best interests at heart. This can take time, and may not happen in a day.
Try some of the ideas above and see whether you can get your team speaking up. And then when they do, be sure to remember that a team that speaks up is a good thing.
Do you have trouble getting your team to speak up? What worked and what didn’t? Share your experiences with me and the other Thoughtful Leaders in the comments below!