Getting People to Speak Up at Work

One of the greatest challenges to a high performing organization comes from within, and it may not be what you think.

It’s getting colleagues to actually communicate with each other: to robustly and constructively share their points-of-view, ideas, recommendations, customer input, concerns and dissents. Publicly. In real time. So the issue or topic can be worked, optimized and the business driven forward. To give participants and decision-makers a deeper, wider, overall better understanding and perspective. To help the organization win in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen enough, and there are many reasons, such as:

  • Shooting the Messenger. It still happens. The bearer of tough, objective news or input gets tarnished. Nobody wants to be that person, and so the input is withheld.
  • Fear of Alternate Views/Contradiction. When the conversation includes people who hold more senior roles, other members of the team may feel uncomfortable to say something that differs from what the more senior person said and/or is thought to believe or want. Those who directly report to such leaders can also be in a difficult situation because they don’t want to embarrass or put their boss in a publicly tough spot.
  • Language Proficiency. Many companies have international colleagues whose first language is not English. Even when their English language capabilities are strong, there is sometimes an uncomfortableness to talk in English, which holds them back from engaging. If their English is a struggle, it’s worse.
  • Lack of Confidence. Sometimes, colleagues just lack the confidence or experience to speak up.

5 Action Steps for Improvement

  1. Be Authentic. Actions create the greatest impact, and colleagues watch very carefully for actual behavior versus pontification. Talk is cheap, so back it up with behavior.
  2. Start with Your Own Team. Set expectations and create an open, collaborative environment. For example, from day one I tell my global teams that I expect and want their active participation. I specifically tell them it’s okay to have a different view than mine and they can constructively challenge my thinking. Of course, they have to provide their rationale. That’s how we get better and make the best decisions. A key part of that is asking them to share their views as much as possible with specific recommendations. For this to really sink in though, there have to be times when the leader changes their mind and/or adopts an alternate idea or point of view.
  3. Encourage Action. Instill an environment in which everyone, direct reports and cross-functional colleagues, participates with an action mindset. Get in the habit of using this simple question: What do you want to do and why? Apply the same for yourself, too!
  4. Invite Participation. Similar to a teacher in a classroom, if the group seems reticent or certain people are not contributing, call on them in a positive, encouraging tone: “Susan, you’ve looked at this issue. What do you think?”
  5. Eliminate Fear. Leaders (and participants) at all levels should foster and ensure an environment in which colleagues are comfortable to speak their mind without fearing they will get in trouble. Don’t shoot the messenger. Don’t crush alternate views and dissent. Overall, be positive and encouraging, yet direct. Further, don’t be afraid of anyone saying “I don’t know.” It’s better than guessing or bullshitting. However, set the expectation that the answer and/or recommended action step is coming soon!

Inspiration Example

Here’s some inspiration to help you get started and/or to help you visualize the type of environment you’d like to create.

The United States Department of State, the diplomatic arm of America, has a mechanism called the Dissent Channel. It’s a formal policy, a bit of insurance or a backstop to ensure multiple points-of-view are put on the table. A timely reply is required. Check out these essential components:

  • Employees should “be able to express dissenting or alternative views on substantive issues of policy, in a manner which ensures serious, high-level review and response.”
  • Objective of “facilitating open, creative, and uncensored dialogue on substantive foreign policy issues.”
  • “Responsibility to foster an atmosphere supportive of such dialogue, including the opportunity to offer alternative or dissenting opinions without fear of penalty.”

Harvey Chimoff is a customer-focused global business leader who connects marketing across the organization to drive performance and achieve business objectives. His B2B and CPG marketing expertise includes agribusiness, ingredients and food and beverage. Contact him at harveychimoff.com.

Get-Started Action Tips to Evaluate How You Stack Up Versus Competition

The late New York City mayor Ed Koch created a personal, attention-getting mechanism for gaining input and feedback. He famously asked: How am I doing?

Business and marketing leaders have much to gain by utilizing a “How are we doing?” outside-in learning approach. One easy-to-implement way to get started is to conduct a¬†regular program to compare your products and services versus other available options.

During my brand management days at Unilever, the marketing teams had scheduled “cuttings” during which they would compare their products to those of their competitors, review new products and/or generally explore options in the category. It was a cross-functional gathering including R&D and sometimes other colleagues. It fostered collaboration and led to productive and interesting conversations about the business, beyond the technical details.

It was also a fun part of the job, and vividly demonstrated why we all came to work each day: to provide great tasting products to consumers.

I remembered those product review sessions when reading about the keynote speech former Kroger and Harris Teeter executive Fred Morganthall gave during this month’s Private Label Manufacturers Association trade show. His advice has widespread relevance beyond the grocery business: Continue reading

A Business Remedy for Conventional Wisdom and Groupthink

Merriam-Webster defines conventional wisdom as “the generally accepted belief, opinion, judgment, or prediction about a particular matter.”

More than ever, we need vigilance and counter-measures to prevent conventional wisdom and the related danger of groupthink from derailing high-performing organizations.

Credit: iStock

Picture this. Colleagues sitting around a table (or maybe remotely connected by phone or video), giving their views, sharing ideas, making recommendations, or just pontificating. Someone has a question, wants a clarification, or can offer a different point-of-view, or an alternate way forward.

We’ve all been there. But what really happens? Continue reading