5 ways to get your team to tell you the truth

You crave bright ideas and candid feedback, but are you creating an environment that’s fertile ground for honesty? Here’s how to extract raw thoughts and suggestions.

Fear of speaking up

Are you squeezing every ounce of creativity and honest feedback out of your team?

You could be missing out on a trove of original ideas—all because of a simple, yet rampant, fear. Fear of speaking up (FOSU) is a workplace epidemic that stifles innovation and creative problem-solving. It prevents people from freely expressing ideas and sharing suggestions.

In today’s hyper-competitive business climate, people are often discouraged from saying the wrong thing and not rewarded for saying the right thing—so they say nothing. Some are just shy and hesitant to pipe up around others. The consequences of this hesitance can be dire: Employees disengage, problems go unsolved, campaigns flop, and businesses lose customers.

Managers typically think they’re creating an open, welcoming environment that encourages truth-telling. Most are surprised when they learn employees are holding back.

Of course, you can’t force anyone to speak, but these five tips will help you extract more candid feedback and thoughtful suggestions from your team:

1. Ask for candid feedback.

When you want to know what’s not working, ask: What’s not working?

More specifically, ask your team:

  • What drives you crazy about this new system?
  • What about this project concerns you?
  • How is this change going to make things worse for our customers?

Don’t ask vague, non-specific questions. A general “How’s the project going?” is more likely to be met with a response your team thinks you want to hear, such as, “It’s going great!”

2. Have an U.G.L.Y. conversation.

Chat with your group about where you’re most vulnerable—as a team and as an organization. You can start with four strategic questions:

U: What are we underestimating?

G: What’s got to go?

L: Where are we losing?

Y: Where are we missing the yes?

These sorts of specific questions tend to elicit more substantive, honest feedback.

3. Reward truth-telling.

As with any behavior, you get more of what you encourage and celebrate—and less of what you ignore. When an employee brings up an issue in a productive way, thank that person publicly, and explain why it’s so important that people speak up.

Be mindful of your reactions. No one likes to hear bad news, but try to keep your cool when your colleagues bring up touchy subjects. This goes for nonverbal reactions, too. If your colleagues see you smiling but sense you’re seething, they’ll be less likely to speak up. Saying “thank you” with a look of disgust doesn’t fool anyone.

It’s not enough to just say, “All feedback is welcome here.” You must actively reward the bravery it takes to pipe up and offer honest ideas.

4. Build problem-solving competencies.

Saying “Don’t bring me a problem without a solution” is the fastest way to get your team to stop speaking candidly. Work to build problem-solving competencies on your team.

When your team brings you a problem, encourage them to also identify potential solutions. Ask them:

  • What is your goal?
  • What have you tried?
  • What happened?
  • What did you learn?
  • What else do you need?
  • What else might you try?
  • What do you think might happen if you tried option A? How about option B?
  • What do you think you will do?

If they say, “I don’t know,” then ask, “What would you do if you did know?”

5. Acknowledge the feedback.

“I don’t know why I speak up; no one does anything with what I say.” Does that sound familiar?

Human beings want to be heard. Validate your colleagues’ feedback with, “Thank you,” and, “I hear you.” Share what comes next and why. Even if you can’t act on a person’s feedback right away, ensure that your teammates feel heard.

If you want your team to tell you the truth, prove to them that you’re listening. Simply acknowledging feedback is an easy first step toward getting more of it.

Karin Hurt is CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, and David Dye is president of Let’s Grow Leaders. They are the authors of “Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul.


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