10 tips to get your staffers to pipe up

Good leaders communicate well. Great leaders use their voices to help colleagues find theirs. Here’s how to get more substantive feedback from your team.

10 ways to get employees talking

Excellent communication can strengthen relationships and help your organization solve crucial problems.

Unfortunately, most companies fail to prioritize or extract valuable feedback, opinions, suggestions, ideas and insights from employees. A study from VitalSmarts found that just “one percent of employees felt ‘extremely confident’ when it comes to voicing concerns in the workplace.”

How can you draw more candid, thoughtful feedback from your staffers? Start with these 10 techniques:

1. Get to the root of the problem.

The first step is identifying why people aren’t raising their hands or speaking up.

To glean more about the lack of feedback, try interviewing your team members or conducting focus groups. You could also send surveys to uncover what’s going on. You might find that staffers are afraid of being criticized—or they might just prefer giving feedback in writing. Some might not understand what you expect from them nor grasp how valuable their insights are to you.

Find out what’s preventing people from voicing their opinions, and take concrete steps to correct course.

2. Don’t overwhelm your team.

Whenever you’re presenting information, keep it simple and concise. Skip the jargon, and focus solely on one or two pressing issues.

If you bombard your team with information—or if you talk at them instead of with them—you’ll quickly deflate enthusiasm and quash participation.

3. Apply radical candor.

Don’t berate or belittle your colleagues, but do try to create an environment of direct, straightforward honesty.

“Radical candor is clarity offered in the spirit of genuine support, where people feel it’s their responsibility to point out one another’s weaknesses to give them a hand up to the next level,” Grainne Forde explains on Teamwork.com.

If you do offer a critique (ideally in a one-on-one setting), try to pair it with a compliment to soften the blow. Make sure your feedback is constructive and helpful for growth and development. Otherwise, it could seem like arbitrary nitpicking.

4. Reward people for speaking up.

You don’t have to throw a party for an employee who asked a question during a meeting. However, you should recognize those who participate and contribute. That might involve a gift card, a coffee, offering to pay for a public speaking class, praise in an email or just a sincere “thank you.”

As Hemant Kakkar and Subra Tangirala write in Harvard Business Review: “[I]f you want your employees to be more vocal and contribute ideas and opinions, you should actively encourage this behavior and reward those who do it.”

5. Make meetings more engaging.

Boring, lengthy meetings can crush productivity and morale. Try these tips to have better, more engaging meetings:

  • Open with an icebreaker, such as telling a story or playing a quick game.
  • Don’t pummel people with industry slang or jargon.
  • Ask attendees to leave their phones somewhere else.
  • Save handouts until the end of the event to avoid distractions.
  • Leave time for a Q&A at the end.
  • Send out an agenda in advance so everyone is prepared.

6. Stop dominating the conversation (and listen instead).

Leaders often love hearing themselves talk. If you’re always dominating the conversation, however, others won’t even bother chiming in.

If you have a few domineering gabbers in your group, don’t be afraid to cut them off and ask for others’ thoughts. If you are the domineering gabber, try talking less and listening more.

7. Be aware of body language and power cues.

Your nonverbal communication can dramatically affect the people around you—and influence whether they choose to speak. For instance, how willing would you be to “share your thoughts” with a leader who is frequently frowning and standing with arms crossed? Most would keep their opinions to themselves.

However, if you smile, make eye contact and stand in a relaxed, upright posture, you’ll put your team more at ease.

Also, be mindful of “power cues,” which can affect how you’re perceived. For example, leave the expensive wardrobe at home, and consider replacing your office’s rectangle desk with an oval one so you can sit next to employees.

8. Boost teamwork.

“When employees work in teams, they actively practice sharing their thoughts and speaking up to accomplish tasks as a group,” writes Eric Friedman at eSkill. “This gets them used to talking about their work, whether it’s sharing new ideas or concerns, and can be applied on a wider scale to the entire company.”

Freidman adds: “Teamwork also works on a psychological level by bringing employees closer together, helping them form bonds to each other and the work, which will help them feel more confident to speak their minds.”

9. Accept different types of feedback.

Use a variety of methods to gather employee opinions and feedback. Try various forums—such as anonymous surveys, suggestions boxes, focus groups, smaller team meetings or one-on-ones—and make sure you act on the feedback.

10. Lead by example.

Do you think your team will feel comfortable enough to speak their minds when you aren’t? Probably not.

Prioritize listening, but boldly speak up when you have something to say. Express your expectations, push back when necessary, and have the courage to say what must be said.

Moreover, don’t hide in your office all day. Walk around and chat with your team frequently. See how they’re doing, and ask whether there’s anything you can help them with. These small interactions can make a big difference in creating a workplace that fosters open, transparent and honest conversations.

John Rampton is the founder of Calendar. A version of this post first appeared on the Calendar blog.


4 Responses to “10 tips to get your staffers to pipe up”

    Chris Bozman says:

    While I believe there are some great tips here, I disagree with the “pay for play” idea. Giving the first employee who speaks up or asks a question in a meeting a gift card or other monetary reward could have negative repercussions (and some companies don’t allow this type of reward system). You may be sending a message that more extroverted staff, who are more likely to speak up, are more “valuable” than introverted staff, who may not be as comfortable sharing views publicly without having had time to think the question/topic through beforehand. The larger issue here is why the team doesn’t feel safe, or why there seems to be a low level of trust among team member or in you as the boss. I’d spend more time on the root cause (#1) and team-building activities, including helping them learn about different styles of working and interacting. Allow them the time to bond. Having a shared purpose as ONE TEAM can help solidify all of this and create a natural environment for problem-solving and creativity. You can’t fix broken trust or get rid of fear with a gift card.

    Bill Spaniel says:

    How about rotating the person responsible for organizing and leading the meeting. If you have a routine meeting every week, schedule a different person each week to draft the agenda and to guide the meeting through it. This not only allows people who normally don’t participate to shine, it also builds leadership skills.

    BTW, I agree with Chris.

    Paula Cassin says:

    Go talk to your agile coaches! check out what’s happening in your software development teams if you have any! These are pretty basic tips – suggest looking at agile coaching activities you can use to dig into problems, prioritize work. There is an entire realm of actionable ideas, formats – just look up Lean Coffee for one. Learn how to use Post It notes so that people feel safe giving feedback without being influenced by what others are saying.

    Or find someone to train you on Liberating Structures, used in corporates more and more, group interactions that emphasize collaboration instead of someone ‘directing’ the meeting. Create safety.

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