The team slowly shuffles into the meeting room, taking up the available space until no visible floor remains. It’s time for the monthly team meeting. There are some juicy items on the agenda this week. Some of them could be quite contentious, so you’re a little nervous. The meeting begins and ends. The team drips back out of the room like sand through an hourglass. Nobody had raised any objections to what you were proposing. Nobody made any effort to speak up.
You thought it was going to be a contentious meeting, but it turned out to be quite positive. Nobody had any complaints or aired any grievances. A great result, right?
Wrong. When silence is all you hear, the situation is bad. When people don’t speak up, something is amiss. The question you need to ask yourself is, why?
Why your team won’t speak up
If your team used to speak up but now don’t, that’s a problem. If your team *never* spoke up, that is also a problem. You need feedback to improve, like everyone else. In my experience, there are several reasons why your team may not speak up.
1. Your team won’t speak up, because nobody listens
If your team has voiced concerns or ideas in the past and not been acknowledged for it, there is a good chance they won’t keep trying. If their concerns fall on deaf ears and nothing is ever done to address them, it’s natural for people to give up. They know if they speak up or don’t, the result is the same.
2. Your team won’t speak up, because they are apathetic
I’ve seen this situation in many teams. Often a leader will try to introduce a new method, process or technology and the team will simply shrug. A usual response is “We’ve tried this before and it didn’t work”. If this is the case, your team has given up trying to improve. They no longer try because they feel as if they are stuck in the status quo, where nothing ever changes.
3. Your team won’t speak up, because they are scared
Some teams don’t speak up because they fear the reaction from their boss. They don’t want to be seen to rock the boat, so they say nothing. If you instil fear in your employees, congratulations. You’re one of the many leaders that the world could do without.
Employees who fear losing their jobs don’t do their best work, and they certainly won’t speak up with an honest opinion. Remember that fear based leadership doesn’t work.
4. Your team won’t speak up, because the team culture discourages change
This is the way we’ve always done it. This is just how it works here. We’ve tried this before and it didn’t work. This is the way this place is.
When your team members start using statements like this, you could be in trouble. A collective mindset of helplessness has developed, and these phrases only reinforce it. What soon happens is people stop suggesting improvement or change, because the prevailing attitude is that it doesn’t work.
Why you need your team to speak up
Leading a team that can’t express honest opinions or new ideas is fraught with danger. There are good reasons why you should try to create conditions in which speaking up can occur more easily.
1. You need your team to speak up to tell you when you’re wrong (in a nice way)
Come up with a new way to run your team? New team structure? Introducing a new technology you read about in a magazine?
That’s great! But your team needs to speak up to let you know when you’re out of your mind. Silence from your team may only encourage you because it seems as if they have no objections.
How you may be stopping this from happening: If you ignore, belittle or harass your team for objecting to your new ideas, they may stop speaking up.
2. You need your team to speak up with good ideas
Here at Thoughtful Leader, it’s not a dictatorship. Good ideas can come from anywhere and a leader would be foolish to discount them just because it wasn’t their idea. People in your team will have different experience than you do. Use it.
How you may be stopping this from happening: If you take credit for other people’s ideas, ignore suggestions or implement only your own bright ideas, your team may stop speaking up.
3. You need your team to tell you what is going on
You can’t be everywhere all the time, and you don’t have the same connections as your team. To remain well connected in your workplace, it can help when your team members tell you about issues or events that may affect the team.
This could be things such as what other teams are doing to solve a problem, or new ways of working that other people are trying. It could be that there is a financial reporting change that may affect your team and you don’t know about it yet. Or maybe Dave and Sharon from Marketing finally got together…wonderful! (though not what we’re talking about here).
You may think you’re “in the know”, but you’d be surprised at what talking goes on below the leadership level which may have a dramatic effect on your team.
How you may be stopping this from happening: If you don’t talk to your team members frequently, don’t appear interested in what they say, or think that your leadership communication network is the only thing that matters, your team members may stop telling you anything and you may just be missing out.
Some leaders fly blind, using only their own ideas and networks as sources of information. Don’t fly blind, create an environment where your team can speak up and you can harness their good ideas, news and most importantly, when you may be on the wrong track.