Are You Creating A Safe To Say Environment?

| | Leading Organizations

Safe to Say” was the term one of my clients used to describe the kind of environment they wanted to create.  By “Safe to say” they meant people felt comfortable sharing bad news and could openly talk about what was not working and what they did not like without fear of repercussions formally or informally.

On the surface it was a very positive work environment, except there was a lot of negative conversation going on behind the scenes.  People were generally polite and respectful in dealing with one another publicly.

Despite the fact that leaders were hearing lots of positive conversation, something fundamental was missing:  straight feedback.

dangeraheadsignYet when something needed to be said that threatened the status quo, it was like there was a big sign in the room that said “Danger Ahead”.

When interviewing the staff it became clear why most people did not feel it was safe to speak up and say what was really on their mind. There was a lot of anecdotal evidence that people had harmed their career by “telling the truth”.

Speaking up when you had something to say that was not positive was widely considered a career limiting move.  It didn’t even matter that much of the anecdotal evidence was actually just gossip.  People believed it and acted accordingly.

If you are a leader and believe that you are not getting the straight, honest feedback you want and need, here are 5 things to consider:

1.  Fear of Speaking Up is the Rule not the Exception

It is natural for people to fear speaking up with anything that might occur as negative, contrary or controversial.  When someone has power over you, which is reinforced through the organizational structure, they inherently do not feel safe.  After all, why risk “biting the hand that feeds you”?  Understand it is hard for a lot of people to speak their mind.  Sure it would be great if there were more courageous people out there, but once you believe the problem is “them” it is game over because the only person you can change is you.  Recognizing this is the first step to changing it.

2.  Positive and Straight are Not the Same Thing

The belief that positive is good and negative is bad has caused a lot of honest and important conversations to run underground where they can do damage rather than make a difference.  Delivering straight communication is a function of both honesty and intent to contribute.  Sometimes honest isn’t pretty or positive. As a leader you must not only be able to invite straight communication, you must be able to hear it gracefully.

3. Reactions to Your Reaction Will be Amplified

For better or for worse your reactions to people’s attempt to deliver straight communication that comes out negative will send waves through the organization.  Sometimes even what seems like a minor negative reaction will get blown out of proportion.  As a leader you must develop the skill of  listening for the commitment behind complaints and responding in a way that has someone know they were heard for both what they said and the commitment behind their willingness to take the risk of speaking up.  The moment you react negatively in any way to someone delivering a difficult message, you have reinforced the belief that it’s not safe.

4.  “Don’t Come to Me with A Problem, Come to Me With a Solution” is Misunderstood

This phrase came to be because people in managerial and leadership positions wanted to encourage people to think on their own and not always come to them for the answer.  Except when you use this phrase it is often interpreted mean “don’t bring me any problems, solve them on your own” or “I don’t want to hear any bad news, just fix it”.  Of course you still want to encourage people to think and act independently, but when they do come to you with a problem, be mindful of using this phrase.  Sometimes your team needs your help to solve a problem.  It’s your job to teach them the difference between working with you and expecting you to solve it for them.

 5.  The Thing You Have the Hardest Time Hearing is Often the Thing You Most Need to Hear

It’s time for you to get straight with you.  Identify the things that are hard for you to hear.  The biggest clues are those things people say that you react to in any dimension of your life.  It’s often not the message, but rather what we make it mean about us that causes us to react despite the facts of what is said.  In fact, it is likely your colleagues know exactly what those are because after they have worked with you a while they will learn to steer away from anything that will hit that hot button.  Many times we are blind to what they are.

A great way to find out quickly is to ask your family, friends, and/or team: “what have you been trying to tell me that you think I can’t or don’t want to hear?”  Asking directly for that kind of feedback has a way of taking the pressure off of the communication on both sides.

What do you have to add to this list that could help someone create a “safe to “say” work environment?


Enter A Comment

Kaarina Dillabough   |   17 February 2013   |   Reply

Excellent points, but I do still believe in asking people to come with a potential solution to a problem…never to dump their problems on the desk or mind of another.

The key, I believe, is the word “potential”. When people are asked to think, rather than simply absolve themselves of the thinking process toward a potential solution, too many see it as a fast way to dump their problem onto someone else.

The potential solution might simply be to say: I need help. I don’t know what I don’t know.

I agree that people should feel free to express that they don’t have “the” solution, but I do encourage people to do the thinking first. Then, if they still can’t see light at the end of the tunnel, there potential solution is to seek assistance, counsel, advice, help. Cheers! Kaarina

Kaarina Dillabough   |   17 February 2013   |   Reply

P.S. I see I hit send too quickly, haha!

I should have said, “When people are asked to think, rather than simply absolve themselves of the thinking process by being able to dump a problem onto someone else, they at least pause and take responsibility for having spent time on the problem” The sentence above made no sense: apologies

Plus, “there” should have been spelled “their”. Oh my…I must need another morning cup of coffee:)

Susan Mazza   |   18 February 2013   |   Reply

Yes, Kaarina, I too agree with the intent behind the phrase to think things through, be able to offer potential solutions, and above all to own the problem rather than lob it up the chain of command or over to someone else. I have observed too many times though in which people struggled way longer than they should have before asking for help because they didn’t want to look bad to their boss.

I guess the bottom line is we have to truly understand how people interpret what we say because it is not always what we intend. In some organizational cultures catch phrases like this have taken on a meaning not originally intended.

I like your simple solution!

P.S. I hate when I only see something just after I hit post! I’m changing my commenting system soon to one that will allow you to edit.

Thanks for coming by and sharing your insights.

Amber-Lee Dibble   |   17 February 2013   |   Reply

(Kaarina, I just made a fresh pot of coffee, please, help yourself!)
LOL, Hi Susan!

I really REALLY like this post. #3 is the most important thing to remember, as leaders, I think. All cues come from the leader, the boss. I think that this one, above all the others is important for each of to remember because we are all being watched, learned from and mimicked… What do you want to see in your team?

I agree with Kaarina that we have to be cautious and handle properly the #4 and any open door policy… but that also comes with selecting the right team to begin with and not selecting the pay-check-cashing-time-clock-clicking humans.

Thanks for this one, Susan.

Susan Mazza   |   18 February 2013   |   Reply

Thanks Amber!

You offer a great question: What do you want to see in your team? They are watching you. (As a parent this can be painfully clear at times!)

Also a great point that the context for your open door policy starts with who you hire.

Appreciate your insights.

Margy Bresslour   |   18 February 2013   |   Reply

Your post got me thinking. I have two suggestions to add to your list:

1. One way to help assure that people will openly share with you is to reinforce their comments and suggestions. Make a comment about their suggestion when you see them next or let them know that their thoughts have prompted new thinking on your part or that you actually put the suggestion into practice. When you respond to their suggestion, they (and others) will see that you are serious about what you say – that you truly are open to hearing their thoughts and that you value their input.

2. It might also be useful to access your openness to hearing and learning. Beyond getting feedback from people close to you about how you come across, you might assess the times you found yourself feeling strong emotions when people offered suggestions and feedback. What were you telling yourself that brought out those emotions? Do you feel threatened when good ideas come from people other than yourself? Do you feel you should have known? When asking for feedback make sure you are open to hearing what others are sharing. Be curious. If you’re not open to hearing or responsive to suggestions, you might want to understand why. Other people will pick up on your response whether spoken or not.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

Susan Mazza   |   18 February 2013   |   Reply

Thanks so much for adding these great additional suggestions Margy. Actively seeking opportunities to let people know that you both heard their feedback AND how it informed your thinking and/or actions is very effective. The second part is often a missed opportunity.

To your second point curiosity is key – if you can approach the discovery from that context you will discover a lot of useful insight to your blind spots as a leader. Yet as you point out, you really do have to be ready to openly receive whatever you might hear.

Sharon Gilmour-Glover   |   19 February 2013   |   Reply

Hi Susan,

I really enjoy your posts. I love the conversations you inspire even more.

One of the ways we help people take the judgement out of needing to share “negative” information, is to frame within a results focus and use assumption-based planning. We always assume positive intent, that is the person or people involved thought something was going to work when they initiated it. If we aren’t getting the results we want, whether they are tangible or intangible, that’s information that some of our assumptions were wrong. The results are what they are. Some results feel better than others.

Love your work Susan. Thanks for sharing,

Susan Mazza   |   20 February 2013   |   Reply

Thank you so much Sharon for your kind words and for engaging in the conversation here. The conversation is my favorite part too!

You offer a great context for opening the door to straight conversations. If your focus is on creating the future you want and there is something is in the way you want to hear about it no matter what it is.

Dain Dunston   |   21 February 2013   |   Reply

Susan, great post. Your #5 reminds me of a list of top ten reasons CEOs fail that Fortune published some years ago — CEOs who didn’t want to hear the bad news. I know, I’ve been there. But unless you can hear it, no one’s going to tell you until it’s too late to fix.

Susan Mazza   |   22 February 2013   |   Reply

Thank you Dain. Not surprising this was on the top 10 reason’s CEO’s fail list. Thanks for sharing that.

Having a blind spot about your ability to hear bad news in a leadership position can indeed be the ultimate career limiting move at best and lethal to your organization’s well being at worst.

Michael Clark   |   26 February 2013   |   Reply

Outstanding post, Susan!
You’ve definitely hit 5 core challenges leadership faces in improving communication and collaboration. Every one of these examples is happening in organizations around the world as I write these words.

Effective leaders continuously engage in deep self-assessment about their perspectives and attitudes towards self and team improvement. Communication and collaboration transformation does not happen by accident or good intentions.

Creating continuous improvement demands a steady stream of power tools and real-time strategies. We must develop the capacity to get out of our comfort zones, say what needs be said, hear what needs be heard.

Extremely well done, Susan!

Susan Mazza   |   27 February 2013   |   Reply

“We must develop the capacity to get out of our comfort zones, say what needs be said, hear what needs be heard.” Well said! I think you summed up the entire article in a tweet 🙂

Thanks for your kind words Michael and for stopping by to share your thoughts.