Monday, July 16, 2012

Manager Mondays: Dealing With The Silence, Part 2

Welcome to Manager Mondays, a weekly feature about crafting good internal organizational messaging.  This is the second post in a two-part series.  Last week, we talked about developing a state of high trust to set the stage for honest feedback-gathering.  This week: some ideas for how to get people to talk, once trust has been established. 

Answer this question honestly:  

When you start conversations at work about troubleshooting problems or improving quality, which type of response are you more likely to get from your team: 
  • imaginative engagement
  • noncommittal neutrality
  • robotic resentment 
Would you like to improve the quality of that response?  Then read on...

It's interesting how many  expressions in the English language equate dialogue with battle.  Having a difficult conversation is described as navigating a minefield.  A failure to persuade is often grounds for bringing in the big guns.  And when someone is asked to give his opinion, he may respond, "That's a loaded question."   Loaded with what?  I don't think we mean marshmallows!  Dynamite, more likely.  

All of these battle metaphors should tell us something: the average person often feels threatened when called upon to speak out.  

This is especially true in the context of relationships with power inequality, such as the boss-employee relationship.  Managers need to be aware that to employees, a seemingly harmless question from the boss can seem as dangerous as a bomb thrown into their midst.  

The key to getting good feedback is to defuse the inherent bomb-like quality of questions.  Here are some simple ways to do that. 

1.  Frame feedback questions as invitations, and feedback answers as contributions.  Always allow feedback to be voluntary. Solicit people's ideas the same way you would solicit extra donations of time or money.  The truth is, your company pays your people to do the tasks in their job descriptions,  but you don't own their brains.  You should never assume that you have the right to their innermost opinions. Instead, ask for their input the same way you would ask people to participate in a charity event:  

a.  Invite them to participate in a worthy causeDon't just mention the kind of information you're looking for; also state the outcome you hope to achieve. For example, you might say, "Please help us improve our ____  program by sharing your thoughts about _____."   (This should be perceived as an outcome that is for the good of all.  If not, you may need to offer incentives to participate, such as bagels and donuts, free movie tickets, etc.) 

b.  Explain the extent of the commitment you'e asking for. Just as you would define what is expected from participants at a charity event, let your people know exactly how they'll be expected to share their opinions.  Are you asking them to attend a meeting to discuss a certain topic?   Respond to a few questions via email?  Participate in an online survey? Drop by your office for a chat?  Paint a detailed picture.

c.  Articulate limits right from the start.  State whether any consequences or further actions might result from employee's participation in this feedback-gathering process.  Reiterate how comments will be used, and how they won't be used. If the topic is of a sensitive nature, give formal reassurances of anonymity, confidentiality, etc. Let people know to what extent their remarks might be shared with others in the company, and how.

d.  Afterwards, send a follow-up email with your thanks for participants' feedback, and let them know the results, however minimal. The point is to let people know that they made a difference.  For instance: "We were able to pass along several great suggestions to the _____ department." or, "Your insightful input will help guide future work on streamlining the _____ system."  Tie it back to the worthy cause: "This will keep our ____ program on track to yield optimal results toward this year's goal of  _____."

2.  Whenever you ask for feedback, craft your inquiries with soft edges.  Remember the expression "loaded question" and take the time to prepare questions beforehand so they come across as unloaded as possible.

a.   Talk about possibly, not definitely.  Back off from black-and-white questions.  Remember that power inequality is a factor, and requests for firm conclusions might sound too demanding.  Instead, use phrases such as: "What might be a better way to.."  "What could be the cause of..."  "What factors may be contributing to..."

b.  Use question formats that are easy to answer.   Rehearse the possible answers a person might give to determine whether the question is going where you want it to go. If a question seems complicated, break it down into two or more separate questions.  Use simple, straightforward language.  Offer options to pick from.   (Survey Monkey, which offers ten-question surveys for free, also gives tips on how to construct questions.  If you're not experienced in this area,  I recommend using Survey Monkey to design your questions, even if you don't use their online survey to deliver them.)

c.  Keep all queries blame-neutral.  Never force people to point the finger at people -- themselves or anyone else --  even in confidential surveys or private conversations.  Doing so would betray any high trust  (see the first blog post in this series). Instead, construct questions so they focus on identifying systems, tools or processes that might need to be revised.

d.  Finally, don't be stupid.  Phrase questions objectively.  People can  tell when you're fishing for your own agenda.  A friend of mine recently showed me an anonymous employee satisfaction survey that his workplace distributed.  An "Agree or Disagree" section contained statements very similar to these:   
"I am grateful for the opportunities that XYZ Company has afforded me."  
"I constantly think about ways that I can improve my performance for XYZ Company." 
"Since XYZ Company treats me so well, I should always be loyal to XYZ Company." 
"I know that XYZ Company management always has my best interests at heart."
"If XYZ Company gives me more employee benefits, I should work harder for XYZ Company."
If you think I'm making this up, I'm not.  My friend and I marveled at the audacity of anyone who would send out such a ridiculous survey, but there it was. Talk about loaded!  This is not feedback-gathering.  It's abuse.  And its effect will be as destructive as dynamite to the culture and morale of that workforce.  

Don't think you can coerce people into collaborating with you to solve your company's problems.  And don't invite passive sabotage by bullying your people into supplying feedback.  Instead, invest time and effort to design feedback-gathering initiatives that make your employees feel like valued experts.  Work hard to earn your team's trust.  Then give them a forum for the honest exchange of ideas, criticism, and realistic commentary.  They will repay you, not with robotic, resentful compliance, but with interested, imaginative engagement.  

And silence will be a thing of the past.


  1. Hi Beth,

    Omigosh, I can see so many items on your list above that isn't being practiced by some managers in my life thus far which broadly explains the "crickets" phenomenon that you had mentioned. It is no wonder why. Well, it is extremely difficult for many managers to change this I think. So far, only the most empathetic ones tend to reflect and think about how to better themselves. Many others are quite simply bullies.

    Thanks for the post!


  2. I'm sorry to hear that, Ronian. It sounds like you've experienced some rather dismal workforce messaging in your travels. You're right, bad communications practices tend to be self-perpetuating. People who project strong confidence levels tend to value being right all the time, and therefore they don't like to ever admit they may be wrong... so they deny their own performance shortfalls, thereby closing themselves off to improvement. Hopefully these Manager Monday posts are causing some people to become aware of their communications blind spots and rethink their behaviors.