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Overcome Fear of Sharing Ideas

Shhh…the boss is coming…”

Are there issues your employees talk about in the break room or the parking lot — that they wouldn’t think of bringing up when you’re present?

How to Reduce Cynicism, Mistrust and More

Reduce cynicism, mistrust and “undiscussables” with an environment where supervisors and employees:

  • Give credit for good work.
  • Show appreciation.
  • Take responsibility for mistakes rather than make excuses.
  • Share, don’t restrict information.
  • Work together on important issues.
  • Talk about WE (“we’re in this together) rather than US or THEM.
  • Focus on big-picture issues. Don’t get sidetracked by small details.
  • Don’t use organizational structure and roles as weapons. Don’t talk about your rights or your turf.
  • Value the background and experience of others. Don’t discredit their competence.
  • Openly voice concerns, criticisms, and conflicts.
  • Speak positively, not cynically, about the organization and the future.

Skills Required of Bosses

1. Listen accurately to what others are saying. Be able to paraphrase.

2. Be willing to do what you ask others to do. Be a role model.

3. Be an initiator. Take the lead.

4. Be open to feedback. Reward, don’t shoot the messengers.

5. Be willing to make changes.

6. Be alert to day-to-day opportunities to promote a high-trust workplace environment.

7. Deal with your fear of speaking up.

8. Facilitate, rather than direct, discussions and meetings.

9. Take a developmental, learning-oriented approach. Don’t be afraid to make some mistakes.

What causes certain topics — such as the boss’s management style, a co-worker’s performance or competence, compensation and benefits, conflicts, feelings, organizational changes — to be undiscussable?

Fear. Fear that speaking up may cause repercussions, like losing credibility or reputation, or hurting chances of career advancement. Fear of rejection, embarrassment, trouble with the boss.

Fear and the resulting lack of communication can lower quality, productivity and innovation in your workplace, according to Kathleen Ryan, co-author of “Driving Fear Out of the Workplace.”

Don’t ignore your workplace “undiscussables,” Ryan and co-author Dan Oestreich write. Focus on those sensitive issues people fear discussing, and deal with them.

How do you find out what are the undiscussables for your workplace? Ryan described a possible scenario.

You get your employees together to introduce something new, like the implementation of a new software program. Go a little further and ask employees what they see as the pros and cons. Then listen carefully.

“Pay particular attention to what they see as disadvantages,” said Ryan. “Just listen. Don’t try to solve, explain, or argue at this point.”

Pretend you’re an investigative reporter,” Ryan suggested. “Listen in an accepting and interested way. Don’t be judgmental. Be sincere and natural. Don’t push too hard. Be patient and don’t overtalk. Clarify and paraphrase to assure that you’re hearing and understanding what’s being said. Try to find out why certain things are important to them.”

What if Nobody Says Anything?

“They’re afraid to speak up,” said Ryan. “In that case, if you really want to know what employees are thinking, it will be up to you to get the conversation rolling.”

If employees are reluctant to open up at first, try verbalizing likely fears yourself. Say to them, “If I were you, I’d be worried about whether it’s going to take more of my time to learn to use the program, or whether it might put me out of a job…” Conversation may follow.

So employees know they’ve really been listened to, and that it’s safe and even worthwhile to risk bringing out the undiscussables, you must make an action plan and follow up on their concerns.

You might ask, “Where do we go from here?” to solicit their suggestions.

Ryan recommended shared decision-making. “You don’t have to feel that as boss you have to solve everything yourself,” said Ryan. “Delegate.”

You may still have to follow up to assure that your problem-solving committee doesn’t turn out to be a “black hole” where problems are never heard about again.

An exception occurs when an issue of a personal or private nature comes up, such as how an employee’s family situation or drinking problem affects their work. Tell the group this would be better resolved privately. Encourage their respect for the individual’s feelings and privacy. Follow up one-on-one with the individual employee.

You may be able to take a more direct approach to undiscussables in your workplace, particularly in a team setting. Introduce the concept of undiscussables and have team members keep a list of such issues as they think of them. At a later meeting, share and compare their findings. Again, listen and follow up.

Getting employees to discuss the undiscussables is not a one-time event, said Ryan. Make it part of everyday communication.

Reprinted with permission from Thompson Reuters 05.22

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