A few years ago, I facilitated a company-wide training program for an 80-person organization. Early in the program, we were talking about career deal breakers and I asked someone in the group to share a deal breaker so I knew that everyone was clear on what is and is not a true deal-breaker. An employee spoke up. She said, “I’ve been here six weeks. I’m overwhelmed and exhausted. If I don’t get some help soon, I’m leaving.” People in the room gasped audibly. And everyone surely thought the same thing – “She’s done. She’ll be gone by Monday.”
I ran into the organization’s CEO at the Denver airport two weeks later and we had dinner together. Over dinner, I asked if I could give him some advice. I said, “That woman who spoke up during the training did you a huge favor. You spent time and money to become a more candid organization; she gave you the opportunity to demonstrate whether or not you really mean it. Make sure nothing (bad) happens to her.”
It can be really hard when people disagree with us. Leaders institute a new practice, employees resist. Employees say they agree with a policy in a meeting but managers hear otherwise informally.
It may feel easier to introduce a practice and ask employees to follow it without asking what they think. And sometimes it makes sense to do that. You shouldn’t involve employees in every decision. But in an organization, it has to be safe to offer a counter-point-of-view. It must be safe to disagree – publicly and privately.
Disagreement is hard. But silence and the fear of speaking up is dangerous. Organizations full of yes people don’t innovate. They don’t solve problems or find new ways to save costs. They don’t grow, develop, or change. Hearing the truth takes courage and persistence. Put your ego aside and ask – again and again and again.
Every time I work with a new organization, at least one employee pulls me aside and tells me about the organization’s “list”. Employees who speak up and say things the leadership team disagree with get put on the “list”. And employees who make the “list” disappear from the organization. Mind you, no one has ever seen this “list”, but employees everywhere are convinced it exists. And this is a challenge for leaders.
Even leaders who do all the right things regarding asking for and being open to all kinds of input are up against the belief that it isn’t safe to tell the truth at work. It may not even be true. There may be no consequences whatsoever for speaking up, but the perception of the negative consequence is what matters. And this perception is powerful and pervasive across organizations.
So what is to be done? How do leaders get the truth when employees are afraid, disbelieving and perhaps cynical?
Below are seven practices for leaders and managers to get more truth in their organization:
Put your ego aside. It hurts when people disagree with our beliefs or approach, and we’ll be fine. Let curiosity rather than your ego run the show.
Ask for input. Ask again and again and again. Employees may eventually believe that you really want their input.
Ask for input in different ways – in-person roundtable discussions, email, surveys (if you wish).
Ensure there are no negative consequences for speaking up. You can coach employees on how they spoke up and make suggestions for diplomacy, but reward the courage it took to speak up.
Share what you learn after gathering data. Give more information than you think you need to.
Tell employees the ideas you’re accepting and those you’re rejecting and why. It’s ok not to accept and act on all feedback. But close the loop and explain the rationale for decisions.
Be human. Admit failure, fear, worry, and wins. People trust leaders who are human and humans have feelings and make mistakes. I’ll follow a humble leader further than a polished and seemingly perfect one.
We all know people who have been furloughed, taken pay cuts, or who were laid off over the past few weeks. It happened fast. Business has slowed or ceased in many industries, businesses are shut, people aren’t working. There are loans and tax refunds in place to motivate employers not to reduce employees’ hours or to reduce headcount.
Business leaders are doing the best they can to make decisions that will keep businesses afloat. It is a difficult time to run a business and manage people.
I too am confronted by these decisions in my own business. I had a new person who was supposed to start on March 16th. I have part-timers who aren’t coming in right now. I have an open job I’m not filling.
I want to
suggest you play the long game letting your personal and professional goals drive
your decision making, and I know this is very, very difficult. It’s difficult for
Maybe you need
to lay people off or reduce hours or compensation. Communicate with those
employees from a place of TLC – communicate early and often. Give as much information
as you can. Be as generous as you can.
comes in all forms. It is not necessarily financial.
Tell employees the benefits that are available to them. Be realistic about when employees may receive checks. But also share how you feel about these employees and how difficult it is to reduce compensation and jobs. People want to work for people who are authentic and care about them. Don’t be afraid to show you care. Call and check-in with employees who aren’t working. Ask how they’re doing. Demonstrate concern.
There is a
long game in how we make business decisions but also in how we treat people.
Treat people like they’re family and you’re working to have a long-term relationship.
Lastly, try not
to make decisions from fear. This is a tricky one and one I can’t say I’m doing
well. I’ve made a few too many recent
decisions out of fear. But fear is not a powerful place to stand. Fear is paralyzing
When making personal and professional decisions, consider your long-term goals. Ask, “What do I want my business to look like in one year, three years, five years? What do I need to do today to achieve those goals, within today’s scary reality.” Act from your goals, not your momentary fear. You may need to remind yourself of this from moment to moment. I know I do.
Be realistic. Act with care and humanity. Play your long game personally and
I have a nanny who works in my home. She isn’t afraid of getting sick with the Coronavirus. She was going to the gym, before gyms were closed. I couldn’t tell her not to, however badly I wanted to. I could tell her not to come to work, but that doesn’t help me. How does a nanny work from home?
You are likely in a similar situation. You canceled your spring break trip, your direct report didn’t. You are practicing social distancing, your coworker who sits in the desk next to you isn’t. You’re keeping your kids at home; your next-door neighbors are not. Your kids want to play together.
legally tell an employee or coworker what to do when they’re not working, but
you can tell your coworkers, friends, and family members that you’re uncomfortable.
You can make requests and express concern.
My son is on
the cusp of the cutoff to go to kindergarten in September. He just makes the
deadline. I’ve been asking his preschool teacher how I decide if I should send
him to kindergarten in September. His teacher’s criteria for determining if
children are ready for kindergarten is self-advocacy. Can children ask for what
they need and get their needs met. This is an interesting criterion that I see
adults struggle with all the time.
Do we (the adults)
regularly ask for what we need and want? Are we willing to be uncomfortable on
our own behalf, on our employees’ behalf?
is testing all of us. It’s testing our patience, resilience, and self-discipline.
It’s also testing our personal courage in the area of speaking up.
a few ways to talk about the coronavirus at work:
your concerns. Tell the
people you work with, “We work closely together. I’ve heard you talking about
attending parties and other events with groups of people outside of work. I am
very nervous about contracting the coronavirus virus. This is making me uncomfortable.
I can’t tell you what to do outside of work. Can we talk about what types of social
distancing we’re both willing to practice so we’re both comfortable?”
This will take
courage. If you can’t advocate for yourself, who will?
requests. Tell your
boss, “I’m really committed to the project I’m working on with _______. I’m
working very hard to stay healthy and practice social distancing. I’ve heard _________
talking about going to parties and gatherings with other people outside of work.
We’re working closely together and it’s making me uncomfortable. I want to be a
good coworker and employee and protect myself. Can you help me?”
Caveat – Vet
any conversation you plan to have with your HR person or in-house counsel. Make
sure what you ask for is legal in your home state.
“I want to be a good coworker.” “I want
to do good work on this project.” “I want to be easy to work with.”
concerns: “I’m concerned about getting sick. I’m trying
to limit my exposure to the coronavirus.”
heard you talk about spending time with groups of people outside of work.” “I’ve
noticed you spending time with groups of people.”
you feel: “This is
making me uncomfortable.”
request: “Can we
talk about how we can keep each other safe?”
Creating a safe workspace and working environment requires the courage to speak up. Plan, practice, and prepare your conversations. Don’t speak off the cuff. Vet what you plan to say with your HR person or in-house counsel. Speak from your positive intention. Be courageous. Be safe.
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