How to Empower Your Employees to Tell You What They Really Think

As I’ve demonstrated here in the blog over the last couple of weeks, communication is essential when it comes to organizational success. However, improving the flow of communication is not nearly as simple as waving a magic wand. You cannot simply share with your employees that their voices matter and you want to hear them; you need to work on changing the entire culture of your organization if you want to transform communication into a more highly valued commodity.

Asking better questions is one way to catalyze communication change from your position as a leader. Being more thoughtful with your lines of inquiry shows people that you truly care about their viewpoints and perspectives. Unfortunately, receiving insightful answers is never guaranteed, even if you ask great questions of your people. Because of the power dynamics involved between leader and employee, you might not be getting the whole truth from the members of your team.

You want to know what your people really think, right? You don’t want them to tell you what you want to hear; you want them to tell you the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable.  I would go a step further and say that what you want is for your employees to tell you the truth precisely because it might be uncomfortable.

Ensuring open, honest communication is difficult within any organization, but it is one of the modern keys to business success. It begins with you but must include an effort to ensure that your people feel empowered. You want them to be fearless when they communicate. You want them to avoid holding back information, even when it might reflect poorly on them. And you want to show that their fearlessness in communication is highly valued within the organization.

So, how do you begin to create this culture of employee empowerment?

Understand the Defense Mechanisms that Keep People Silent

According to research, humans have evolved and developed several internal defense mechanisms that increase their caution around people in authority. Individuals are naturally inclined to filter their communication when it flows upward through the chain of command. They filter information through multiple people, but also through unclear, indirect language or silence. So, by the time you hear about a problem, it’s likely that it has existed for quite some time. It’s also likely that the problem has been hidden from you out of fear for your potential negative response or perceived consequences.

This is obviously not ideal and will create a culture built on lack of trust, which will deliver mediocre performance and engagement.

As a leader, it is largely up to you to develop awareness around the flow of communication within your organization. You must have a sense of when ideas and information are flowing freely, but you should also be able to tell when people are using silence to protect themselves. During these times, they may be using extra caution in order to avoid a negative reaction from you or other members of the leadership team.

When you notice that people are being notably tight-lipped around an issue, it’s time to act and jumpstart communication so it can flow freely again.

Giving Permission to Be Open and Honest

In a perfect organizational world, everyone would be unafraid to share their honest feedback and perspective. Sadly, that’s not the world we live and work in. When you notice silence or a conspicuous lack of dialogue regarding an issue, it probably means someone is holding back information. At this point, it is your job to create conditions under which the ice can be broken, and people will feel comfortable to speak up.

Creating a culture in which communication happens freely and openly begins here. The first step is noticing the silence. Then, it is your job to stoke the fire of communication again by giving your people permission to say what they think and to be completely candid. To you, it may seem evident that you appreciate this level of openness and vulnerability. But to your employees, they might be reluctant to openly share until you signal that it’s okay to do so.

It is important that you advise your people, explicitly, that they have permission to be open, share honest feedback and be completely candid with you. Acknowledge that speaking up to people in authority can at times feel uncomfortable and assure your employees that your organization is one in which honesty and openness are respected as critical values. You may have to continuously provide reassurances and over time, your people will begin to develop trust and the real sense that they are free to speak up.

Be a Model of Open Communication

Often, employees of an organization develop specific communication styles based on how their leaders operate. So, if you are often silent or unwilling to share what’s on your mind, your people will most likely follow suit. On the other hand, if you are willing to be vulnerable and share what you really think, it will provide a model of excellent communication that your people are sure to follow. Because you are the leader, it is your responsibility to model and display the behavior you want your people to engage in. This is especially crucial when it comes to communication.

Reward and Encourage Excellent Communication Behaviors

When team members speak up and share difficult information, it is critical to show others that this is the model of communication you idealize for your team and organization. Reward those who speak up with more responsibility. Praise them publicly. Stand behind your word when you tell your people that you prefer them to be honest and candid.

Be a Constructive Critic

One of the main reasons for an employee’s reluctance to speak up is a fear of destructive criticism. Of course, you cannot remove constructive criticism from your communications as a leader, and part of your role is to improve the ways in which your people perform their jobs. The way you deliver and offer criticism is very important so that your people feel more empowered. And it all starts with listening.

Pay attention to what is being shared and do so without judgment. Avoid the urge to shoot a person’s idea down or attempt to alter their thinking. Practice patience when an employee is clearly having difficulty expressing themselves. Instead of dismissing an idea you don’t think will work, ask your team member what aspects of their idea they like the most and allow them to elaborate on how they would bring that idea to life. Find out how they feel the idea will improve the organization. Be open and honest in your response and leave your employees feeling proud for having the courage to speak up, even if you decide not to move forward with their ideas or insights.

Finally, you should show your appreciation and gratitude whenever a team member takes the time to approach you with a thought, suggestion or idea. Build your people up, don’t tear them down – this is how you build a culture that values open two-way communication.

What Are Your Ideas for Building a Culture of Communication?

Have you struggled with building a more communicative culture within your team or organization? What ideas have you tried?

Or maybe you have had success encouraging more open communication within your organization. What ideas worked for you?

Either way, I really value your feedback and want to continue the conversation on this important issue.

Feel free to send me an email at I look forward to hearing from you!

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