4 Common Areas where a Fear of Speaking Up Creates Major Business Problems

4 Common Areas where a Fear of Speaking Up Creates Major Business Problems

One of the indicators of a low trust culture is that gossip rules the airwaves.  All you have to do is walk into the kitchen and you will hear employees gossiping about their boss or one of their peers.  It might seem harmless, but it points to a culture that is hard to shift.  That’s because people are more comfortable with complaining than actually doing anything to improve the situation.  Excuses and blame abound.  

Yet, what it really points to is a culture where people are afraid to speak up.  A study by VitalSmarts found that rather than talking about issues, employees were engaging in resource-sapping behaviours such as: complaining to others (78%), doing extra or unnecessary work (66%), ruminating about the problem (53%), or getting angry (50%).

These are costly behaviours.  The same research found that the average person wasted seven days undertaking these dysfunctional problems instead of talking about it.  A shocking 40% of respondents admitted to wasting two weeks or more.  Silence damages deadlines, budgets, relationships, turnover, employee engagement and meeting goals.  If the culture is really toxic, high performers leave and leaders spend most of their time fixing people issues than actually working on strategy.

After all, when you don’t get the unpleasant stuff out of the way, you waste a lot of time.  It’s hard to get moving on anything if people won’t talk through issues or how to resolve them.

Of course, there can be good reasons why people don’t speak up.   It can be due to power dynamics between a boss and a direct report, fear of hurting someone or fear of being impolite.  It can also be past experiences with speaking up in the past that went horribly wrong.  These are all valid.  But these reasons aren’t helping us improve workplaces.

Let’s face it the world is changing and staying quiet about poor behaviours or decisions allows them to flourish.   Not only does it make the situation worse, but employees feel powerless, unsatisfied and often suffer from poor health.  It’s time we all started to feel more comfortable about talking through issues rather than bottling them up or moaning about it.  Whether it’s something as severe and damaging as sexual harassment in the workplace which has been spread by the #metoo movement.   Or something as simple as not agreeing with a new strategic move.

The only way to encourage honest conversations is for leaders to show the way by creating psychologically safe spaces.   Psychological safety is required to provide employees with the knowledge that they can risk being themselves and they won’t be bullied.  That they can say how they really feel and they won’t be penalised.  Leaders who model the right trust behaviours build high-performance teams according to research by Google Work.

It’s time that we all started talking honestly – not just leaders but those on the frontline.  And this doesn’t give people license to say what they want without caring about other people’s feelings or doing it to prove that they are right.  Leaders need to have the skills to weed out these toxic behaviours.  

In our area of work, we teach leaders how to properly identify trust issues and talk about it honestly.  One of the positive outcomes is that the CEO or head of a department can start getting hidden issues talked about and out into the open.

What we have learnt is that trust has enormous business benefits.  High trust cultures have 2.5 times the revenue generation of low trust organisations.  They have 52% more employee engagement, 40% less burnout, 18% more productivity, 50% less employee turnover and 51% more innovation.

But statistics don’t tell you the full story.  In our experience, we have found that what trust really does is enable everyone in an organisation to have open, honest conversations It ensures the right types of conversations occur to improve performance and enable change.  This means everyone can confidently rely on their colleagues or other teams to do the right thing.  They know that when work gets stressful and into the high risk category they can trust their boss to not blame them when things go wrong and that other departments will deliver on time and at the right standard.

For organisations that don’t practise trust, we have discovered that there are four common workplace areas that cause costly roadblocks and a lot of frustration when people aren’t speaking honestly.  

1. Avoiding Performance Conversations 

This is a big one and it’s common across all industries and business sizes.  That is leaders who avoid providing their direct reports (or peers) with honest feedback.  This leadership behaviour comes from a good place. 

Research by University of California Professors Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman, and Purdue University Professor Kipling D. Williams found that few managers want to cause their direct reports pain, potentially risking an emotional outburst, loss of commitment, or even retaliation.  Instead, in the leaders quest to avoid messy situations and jeopardise a “nice” culture, they take the professional high road – dismissing, delaying or denying, rather than talking truthfully about what isn’t working and needs to change.  

Is it costly?  Of course!  According to “Stop spending, Start managing” by Tania Menon and Leigh Thompson, failure to give underperforming employees feedback costs organisations $7,600 a day.  

Sadly, the majority of employees want to receive negative feedback to improve.  According to authors Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in their article, “Your Employees Want the Negative Feedback You Hate to Give” when asked what was most helpful in their careers, 72% of respondents attributed performance improvement to getting negative feedback from their managers. The same study also showed that managers were reluctant to give negative feedback. 

Furthermore, it’s not enough to provide feedback at an annual performance review.  Accumulating feedback over time is not only too late, but it’s overwhelming and unfair.  The infrequency of feedback means that employees are missing out on regular learning opportunities.  Leaders need to focus on faster feedback loops to accelerate progress towards goals.  It needs to be provided so that employees feel that the leader wants to help them grow (which is a big way to build trust with them).  Leaders just need to make time for it and to make it part of their regular work.  It also needs to be customised for how the direct report wants to hear it.

But it’s not just direct reports who benefit.  Leaders themselves need to be open to this great form of learning.  Doing so will also make it easier for employees to challenge the leader which is a key component of psychological safety.  It also nips toxic behaviours in the bud.

2. Avoiding Team Issues

Another common area where companies avoid telling the truth is in teams.  Whether it’s the leadership team, project teams or even marketing team.  

There are a couple of issues here.  The first one is that people are often so busy being busy, that their heads are in the operational space.  Talking about some of the potential issues that can cause issues down the track seems like a waste of time when everyone is so busy fighting fires.

The second one is groupthink.  Groupthink is when decision making suffers as a cohesive group becomes insulated from dissenting viewpoints.  This is when group members become so comfortable with each other that become unaware of the subtle pressures to be unanimous in decisions.  Especially, when the group leader promotes a particular solution or course of action.  It plays out with team members always agreeing with what is being said and an inability to raise uncomfortable issues.

The third issue is politeness.  Just like leaders can be uncomfortable raising poor performance issues, leaders mistakenly believe that politeness and ‘getting along’ is a strength of their team.  But cordiality often hides passive-aggressive behaviours that avoid the tough conversations and constructive conflict.  Over time, innovation drops off, speed to market and business paces slows down reflecting the issues in the senior team that aren’t being addressed.  In these circumstances, you’ll often find leaders retreating to the safety of their own function or business units to do the real work.

For example, during a recent leadership team workshop I facilitated, the CEO was able to share her concerns with the team about speed decreasing and leaders not working together.  Executives were clearly shocked and discussed why the CEO was incorrect.  The good news was they were debating (and being aware of a new viewpoint).  But the bad news was they were in serious denial about how their camaraderie was masking a lot of hidden issues that were frustrating a lot of them. 

Even if you believe your group dynamics appear sound, it’s  important that the leader of the group and the group itself reflects on:

  • Are you able to challenge each other to improve?  
  • Do team members trust each other to engage in respectful and constructive conflict?
  • Can you publicly pull apart someone’s idea?  Do they join in?
  • Under what conditions does the team shut down communication?
  • Does the group overestimate its abilities?  Have there been times when estimates have been wrong?
  • When do members respond sarcastically to ideas?  Why do they do this?  How often?
  • How can you bring your team trust and team effectiveness to a new level?
  • What motivates your team the most?

3. Avoiding Toxic People Issues

Another common area is when people can’t speak about their bully of a boss.  One definition of corporate culture is that it’s what behaviours get tolerated.  When leaders fail to confront harassment, withholding information, inappropriate language and backbiting – these behaviours flourish.

It is the same with lazy, difficult colleagues that everyone has to work around.   With the organisations we work with, when employees are all working hard and a leader or a colleague is performing poorly it does two things.  It either makes everyone annoyed that their boss isn’t doing the right thing by firing the poor performer or it gives everyone license to perform at a lower level.  Either way, it causes big trust issues because no one wants to deal with the problem person.

For fear of not being nice, leaders and employees end up suffering for too long.   Sometimes the quickest way to solve trust issues in a team or organisation is to actually remove the biggest offender.  The relief that ensues is palpable and leaders often get amazed at how often they are congratulated for actually firing someone (and then how well everyone works together).

4. Avoiding Mistakes

Not every company – or person is perfect.  We all know that.  But when successful leaders pride themselves on their capabilities, when things do go wrong, they usually have trouble admitting it.   

Rather than confront realities, leaders shut down discourse about past mistakes.  Leaders avoid talking about inaccuracies with procedures, poor decision making or potential compliance and safety issues.  Blame, making excuses and an inability to be responsible rules.  This lack of honest discussion means that these issues are bound to happen again.

From a leadership perspective, this is detrimental for transforming the organisation.   Employees will instinctively question a leaders’ character and loyalty.  Most people will hold back from trusting and swearing allegiance to their cause.

While from an organisational perspective, people become uncertain of their job roles, responsibilities, physical safety and timelines because management rules by chaos and confusion.  Typically, you will see ambiguous job roles and expectations.  It’s much easier to hide accountability when no one is responsible.  

But the sad truth is, both the organisation and leaders alike, will never really change because mistakes are seen as embarrassing rather than an opportunity to learn and improve.   It puts the organisation at risk of competitors out-innovating and taking customers.

From Closed Mouths to Candour

In the fast-paced world we live in, companies that still rule with old hierarchical structures that make it difficult for open, transparent and respectful conversations to thrive are at risk of becoming extinct.  People want the opportunity to be heard, to feel valued and to see evidence that their words are actioned upon.  When this doesn’t happen, gossip and complaining become commonplace causing unnecessary friction and slowing down performance.  
 
Open conversations start with leaders who take the time to listen to employees and provide safe spaces for people to speak out.  But it also requires every employee demonstrating emotional maturity and discussing issues rather than complaining about them.   It means learning how to speak up in meetings and people feeling confident in their beliefs and capabilities.  The sooner we all take responsibility for our actions and realise we have more power to do good than to do harm, the better it will be for our workplaces.

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Marie-Claire Ross is the Founder and Chief Corporate Catalyst at Trustologie. She is a workplace sociologist, author, speaker and consultant focused on helping leaders put the right processes in place to accelerate trust during change and growth. She does this through strategic diagnostics, roundtables, workshops, coaching and consulting. Marie-Claire is also the author of the number three ranked book on Amazon, Transform your Safety Communication. She has been interviewed on “Technology Behind Business” for Sky Business News and regularly contributes articles to FM Magazine and LogiSYM on company culture. She is also a Graduate of the Company Director’s Course and is on the SME Committee for the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

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