Workplace communication can be difficult sometimes, but people who don’t speak up can leave others with an incomplete view.
Jane, a city manager, called me out of the blue to ask for some help. After visiting with her for a few minutes, she mentioned that she has an employee who doesn’t do the work that she assigns him. “What would you do?” she asked.
“What hasn’t he done?” I asked.
“Well, he hasn’t painted all the doors in the city administration building that I asked him to paint.”
“How long has it been since you gave him the assignment?” I queried.
“Oh, I think it has been a few months,” she replied.
Shocked, I asked, “Have you given him feedback about this?”
She responded, “Well, sadly no.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“I used to work for a national telecommunications company back East where I managed 40 people. When I gave any of them feedback about their work, they always ended up creating a ton of drama. I hate dealing with drama, so I guess that is why I haven’t brought it up. I‘m thinking it would just be easier to let him go.”
I have wondered how often this — people who don’t speak up — happens in corporate America, particularly when so many companies are still working remotely. I would guess that having potentially difficult conversations is something people are still avoiding. Although more substantial studies exist on the topic, I decided to poll people in my database on this issue to get their opinions. Here are some things they mentioned:
Fear of the consequences
Whatever a person’s history may be, if they think that they will be punished in some way for speaking their mind or presenting an alternate view, they will keep their thoughts to themselves. They believe it is safer to not say anything. This behavior was most likely adopted because of past bad experiences; people who don’t speak up have learned it is easier to be safe than sorry.
Lack of ability
Doing research for my first book, I identified that over 60% of the people in many organizations said that they didn’t know how to bring up tough topics with individuals or with their teams. They consequently do not say anything at all in potentially difficult situations.
Others said that they did make an effort to talk about tough topics, but the outcome ended up being less than desirable. This led them to abandon any further attempt to engage in constructive dialogue.
Some indicated that they were conflict-averse. Consequently, if the situation seemed like it may result in confrontation or a potentially negative outcome, they avoided it.
Many people also lack the emotional intelligence to control their negative emotional response as well as manage the defensiveness of others when disagreement occurs. The notion of conflict is very uncomfortable to those who don’t know how to lean into the situation and move past it.
Fear of offending
Others indicated that they would not speak up if they thought doing so would offend the other party. They would rather maintain the existing relationship rather than run the risk of creating negative feelings or ill will. This was an especially common response of those in their mid-20s to mid-30s.
Fear of being put down
Put-downs lead to shut-downs. Nothing destroys trust for a leader more than this kind of disrespectful behavior. During the course of my career, I have recorded leaders making some of the following statements to their people:
- “I didn’t ask you for your ideas.”
- “Next time I ask, ‘What do you think?’ I’ll be sure to ask an expert.”
- “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”
- “Why did you think that I wanted to know what you think?”
If leaders are making comments like these to their people, it is no wonder people keep their thoughts, ideas and experience to themselves. If the leader makes such statements to an employee in front of other team members, then these people won’t speak up either.
Introverted personality type
Some people are quieter by nature than others. Roughly 39% of the population does not like to be the center of attention but would rather blend into the group. They are often uncomfortable being evaluated by others and avoid making themselves stand out. In group settings, they tend to be quiet observers. They are often more comfortable sharing their ideas one-on-one than being outwardly vocal in a larger setting.
Appearance of incompetence
Others said they were afraid to speak up for fear of appearing incompetent. If they asked questions to gain clarification, they were afraid that their ignorance would be on full display.
Those who were younger also said that their lack of experience and depth in a particular area led them to keep their thoughts to themselves.
Company culture is closed
Many organizations advocate a culture of openness and candor but then act in ways that discourage people from sharing and learning from one another. This often occurs because of a strong emphasis on achieving success at any cost. Companies end up having particular values in theory and different values in fact.
Where openness and acceptance are not practiced and incorporated into the organization’s business practices, then learning, innovation, problem-solving and morale suffer. A company becomes filled with people who don’t speak up.
Opinions not wanted
I have had leaders tell me that they don’t like to ask people their opinions because they think doing so implies that they have to do something with what people offer. They find it easier not to ask at all.
This tells me that leaders don’t know how to manage the expectations that may result from asking for their employee’s ideas and opinions. Effective leaders invite those actively doing the work and producing results to share information; doing so is critical to their success.
How can you help people who don’t speak up?
Leaders can take some steps that will help create a culture of candor and openness.
- Notice who isn’t engaged or speaking up. Pay particular attention to those who are not offering their expertise or experience, especially those who are generally quiet.
- Invite everyone to share. If the same people always respond to your inquiry, be sure to invite those who don’t regularly do so. They have great ideas too. They just may be more reticent or feel overshadowed by more assertive personalities.
- Listen. You can’t invite people to share for appearance’s sake only. Such behavior will tank your credibility. If you invite, then you must listen to what people have to say. You might even want to take notes or otherwise capture what they are sharing so you can sincerely consider their point of view.
- Ask questions. When people share, follow up with questions to understand how they came to hold that opinion or point of view. Ask them to clarify with examples or case studies to help everyone understand.
- Acknowledge and express appreciation. It is important to acknowledge those who participate and engage with your request for information. If people feel valued for their contributions, they will continue to engage and perform at a higher level.
- Keep inviting. Some people may be skeptical of your invitation, especially if you have not done so before. Others may have had negative experiences in the past when asked to speak up, so they will wait, watch to see what happens with others and assess your sincerity. Keep inviting and encouraging their responses.
- Visit with individuals. Try speaking individually with those who don’t speak up. Ask them to share their views and then be sure to acknowledge their contributions. Express the importance of their perspective and continue to encourage them to share when they have an opinion. If circumstances and logistics prevent one-on-one interactions, try using a short survey to poll your team, or invite people to email you with their thoughts.
- Encourage personal visits. For those who may be uncomfortable speaking up in a team setting, encourage them to visit with you outside the meeting. If they come to your office, make time for them and be present while they are sharing their ideas with you.
Encouraging people who don’t speak up to share their views is one of the most important activities you can engage in as a leader. The degree of inclusion and openness in your team’s activities will directly impact the way your team works together and in the quality of the results that you achieve.
John R. Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, which helps clients and their teams improve leadership engagement. He is an expert in the fields of leadership, change, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution and emotional intelligence. Connect with him on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.