You Want an Open Culture? Let Your Employees Share Their Thoughts

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

You are in a boardroom or a staff meeting room. The CEO or someone else in charge has offered the opportunity for employees to make a suggestion or share an idea. Did you ever hear someone express what you thought was a ridiculous idea, which was followed by the sound of crickets? Furtive glances all around. Breathes were held. No physical movements to suggest any type of reaction. Heads remain down and note taking was in actuality mindless doodling.

The idea, like an aroma or the sound of a chime, just hangs in the air. No words have served as an intervention. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, which has parked itself comfortably in the corner, ready to unleash a wail of despair, no one speaks up.

Then, of course, there is the opposite effect. Someone in a brainstorming session suggests an idea or course of action, and it is immediately shot down by one or more voices. Not only summarily dismissed but supplemented by an editorial rant. You can bet that the person who offered his or her idea will shut down and remain quiet for the rest of the meeting. In fact, there is a good chance that the person may never again contribute any thought in future meetings for fear of rejection, or worse, ridicule.

To remain silent in the course of important conversations is counterproductive at best, and harmful at worst. But somehow this is the easy path taken in many organizations because the issue(s) may concern growth, profitability, competition, branding or any other situation. Keeping mum eliminates negativity.

In today’s competitive world, people are emotional; they are ready to strike at any moment if a position is taken that opposes their own. Deadlock can lead to complacency that further leads to paralysis.

What can companies do to avoid this malady? The first thing is for their leaders to proactively and aggressively create environments that are safe: freedom from bias and confrontation. If confrontation is permitted (and maybe even encouraged), what was envisioned to be a thinktank is now a battleground.

Employee silence should stop being confused with affirmation. Conversation, dialogue, and give and take are necessary. How these elements are handled will reliably predict how effective or not the organization will be going forward.

The Quiet is Deafening and Dangerous

Does disaster loom because employees go about their daily routines without interacting with others? Are silos and barriers the new normal? Is this a recipe for disaster? Of course, it is.  Information sharing and bouncing ideas back and forth create an environment of creativity and greater work satisfaction, translating into success. Conversely, silence is a demotivator and a cultivator is disengagement. The company leader must be aware of this and communicate the need for “all hands on deck.” No idea is dismissed; no suggestion is given short shrift. Employees should feel safe to express their ideas, even if they are radical or counter to the prevailing thinking.

To be sure, when employees engage those in authority, there is an element of reticence. How will I be viewed? What will the boss think of me, and will he or she be honest? Whether someone from the outside is needed to groom the organization for change (think Chief Innovation Officer) or whether senior leadership takes it upon itself to encourage input, the ultimate goal is to strengthen departmental and individual relationships.

Some of the best ideas are served up when there is no feeling of potential retribution. Once an idea is acted on and the positive results are achieved (not necessarily 100 percent perfect), the result will be more openness and the desire to automatically express views and recommendations.

Soliciting Feedback is Not Rocket Science

A dictatorial or authoritarian management style does not change overnight. It takes introspection followed by conversations. There are fundamental ways to have purposeful conversations. These are relevant for anyone at any company level.

1. Think About Your Own Style Before Judging the Style of Others. Have you examined how you come across in your interactions, or do you first seek to blame others?

As a boss, what value, if any, do you give to your relationship with your direct reports? Is your desire for them to succeed as strong as it is for yourself?

Are you willing (and ready) to share credit with others for an idea that works?

When someone comes to you with a new idea, are you thinking only how it will help you, or are you thinking how it can be a joint win?

Do you come across to others as open by your body language, or do you evidence dismissiveness by a look or an expression — or evasiveness to a question?

2. Invite Someone in for a Conversation. Knock, knock. Come in. Encourage open conversations and reward employees for making suggestions, even if their ideas are not completely embraced. Seek their opinions and ask follow-on questions. Show a keen and sincere interest in what they have to say.

3. Build a Safe Environment. As I noted before, there needs to be openness in the work climate where ideas are shared freely without prejudgments. Be receptive to ideas and ensure that there would not be any fallout for their suggestions. Give your people more credit to sense honesty and thoughtfulness to recommendations. The last thing you want to do is blow them off with an offhand comment that you will think about they said and get back to them. Don’t make it sound like the “check’s in the mail.” Give real thought to what was offered. Take the tact that your people are intelligent and committed to the organization’s goals. Understand their motivation, and as you continue to evaluate a suggestion, your preconceptions may diminish, superseded by more open-mindedness. This may be a culture shock at first, but the more frequent this occurs the more it becomes ingrained into the way you and the rest of the organization operates.

4. Remove the Cone of Silence. Make an honest and thorough effort to find out why your people are not communicative. Make this the first agenda item on the next company-wide meeting. Open the floor for honest and compelling conversations. Ask about the type of situations that caused people to shut down in the past and what went through their minds during those times. Find out if any damage in the form of operational snafus, lost customers or increased absence resulted. Talk about new approaches for inviting feedback and what the expectations are. By openly talking about these issues, you are giving permission and encouragement to address topics that were previously viewed as private.

If you want a positive change in your organizational culture, then actively and regularly communicate your willingness to have open, two-way conversations with your employees. You are sure to see an increase in engagement, empowerment and motivation from them.

About Steve

Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at www.solutions2results.com.