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Why Your People Don’t Speak Up

By Zena Everett

Do you need people to share more ideas, challenge the status quo, point out opportunities and generally speak up more? 

This is a common challenge I’m encountering now: employees need to be coming up with suggestions but seem to have become passive.  Worse case, they are quitting for greener pastures rather than influencing change where they are. 

Digging for the causes of this, I obviously ask if managers have been trained in psychological safety (an easy win for me if they haven’t).  I am assured that they have been: ‘we really care, we look after everyone, if anything we spoon-feed them.’

Psychological safety doesn’t mean mollycoddling

Psychological safety is not cosy, protecting of poor performance, reduced accountability, ‘are you ok hun?’ mother-hen, management. 

It’s the exact opposite. It means creating a safe challenging environment where people feel safe to take risks, make mistakes, point out issues and opportunities, be their best selves.  This leads to higher performance and innovation: exactly what organisations need now.

Is it time to let go of the reins? 

Over COVID many leaders were wonderful, genuinely stepping up to take care of their teams, making extra efforts to make them feel nurtured and included.

We know from the parent-adult-child transactional analysis model that this ‘nurturing parent’ behaviour can make us slip into ‘child’: defensive, over-sensitive, reliant on others.

Now’s the time to shift back to what high performing teams need: managers to coach and develop them.   Then we all step back into ‘adult’: pushing the boundaries of our job description and adding as much value as we can.  Everyone in the business should be spotting problems and solving them.

We can all be heroes now, not just the people at the top.

People don’t speak up because they have a fear of being viewed as difficult, or they feel that speaking up is futile, or that it will have a negative impact on themselves or others.

Or simply because NO ONE ASKS them what they think.

If you ask great questions, you get great answers. 

Building an inquiry-driven and psychologically safe culture is the essence of success in dynamic businesses. 

Old-style hierarchical leaders rush to give solutions, encouraging dependency.  If they ask questions, they don’t have time to listen to the answers.  They don’t know how to ask follow-up questions, or phrase what we call divergent questions that provoke multiple solutions to niggly issues. 

In inquiry driven cultures, people adopt a question-based approach to challenges, enabling everyone in the team to become a creative problem-finder and problem-solver.  New techniques like Question Bursts encourage everyone to open up. 

People learn to reframe problems, get to the real question, and then get the whole team to solve them, with everyone thinking for themselves. In practice this means a shift to becoming ‘coach-like’ in all our meetings and one-to-ones.   

 


Zena Everett

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