Effective Leadership Communication: How to diminish the “F” factors that discourage employees from speaking freely

In a recent blog post titled, “Are Exit Interviews a Waste of Time?” I shared the observations of the chief human resources officer of a large, international corporation. He pointed out that employees heading out the door rarely are open about all of the true reasons for leaving because they fear burning bridges.
The article “Can Your Employees Really Speak Freely?” from the January-February 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review provides a thoughtful, research-based assessment of what encourages and inhibits open communication and construction feedback in organizations. Authors James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burris convincingly described the two “F” factors that are usually at the heart of employees’ reluctance to speak up:
Fear and Futility.
While Detert and Burris offer helpful perspectives on reducing anxiety and the sense that making constructive suggestions is pointless, the reality is that there is no absolute, fail-safe path for creating an environment of openness and transparency. It is also true that to promote a culture of trust and frankness, you have to start somewhere. Following are several important lessons I’ve learned along the way from smart leaders, colleagues and staff members that I’ve had the good fortunate to work alongside.

Admit when you’re wrong.

When a leader believes – or indirectly communicates – that he is always right, staff stop offering new ideas that are different from his beliefs. An inclination to admit fault or error can be especially challenging for new managers to embrace as they struggle to be “the boss” to an experienced, strong-willed team. “Will it make me look weak or ineffective?” is always in the backs of their minds.
Admitting that you’re wrong does much more than just convey a sense of humbleness. It also sends the important message that it is okay to be wrong. Innovation is widely touted as an essential core competency for health care organizations in today’s rapidly changing environment, and one of the essential elements of innovation is a willingness to try lots of new things, expecting many of them to fail. Being wrong and denying it is a problem; being wrong and learning from it is a mature, healthy leadership strength.

Be willing to explain when they’re wrong.

The benefits of an open, transparent work environment have to extend to everyone on the team – including the leader. The goal of more open communication should not be to simply take everything frontline staff say at face value without any question or challenge; the capacity to be wrong certainly is not the purview of management alone. But when staff are wrong, they deserve to understand why.
Some of the most fruitful, trust-building conversations I’ve had with staff were at times when I needed to explain why their point-of-view didn’t take into account all of the factors related to an issue. Invariably, they better understood and accepted why we were taking a particular approach – and I better understood at a deeper level their ideas and concerns.

Just ask.

Early in my career as a hospital executive, I had a long-term manager leave. While this manager was technically competent and hard-working, I was shocked to learn from frontline supervisors in the department that a caustic atmosphere permeated the work group because of the director’s fear-based management style. I struggled to understand how I could have missed this. In looking for ways I could avoid a problem like this in the future, I confidentially sought the advice of Marlene Jones, one of the best human resources leaders I’ve ever worked with. After listening to my story and appreciating my interest in getting open feedback from staff members, she matter-of-factly said, “Why don’t you ask them?”
At the time, I remember thinking that the answer from Marlene was more simplistic than I was accustomed to. While I had my doubts about whether staff members would actually speak honestly to “the boss,” I took her advice to heart and started asking staff members more often to tell me how they were doing. To my amazement, it worked. And the more I did it, the more insightful – and respectful – the feedback became.
In retrospect, the suggestion to “just ask” was one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received on how to create an atmosphere of openness and transparency. I’ve also learned, however, that it only works when staff members’ frankness and courage to speak up is rewarded with respect and a non-punitive response. If a leader is only hearing “yeah, things are great,” he knows there is more work to do to truly create a culture where everyone can candidly share both compliments and criticisms.

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