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Why Your Leadership Style Might Be Keeping Employees Quiet

March 24, 2021   ·  

Now that you’ve moved up the corporate ladder a couple of rungs, even if it’s just one, you’re starting to feel cut off.

Before you became a team leader, you knew exactly what was going on, with the work and with your fellow team members. They were comfortable sharing their stories and concerns with you, but now, not so much. At least you don’t hear much, even when you ask.

Why is that?

Well, it’s not your fault, and it isn’t anyone else’s either. Human nature is getting in the way.

Just think about how hard it is to be yourself when your boss is around. It’s the same for your team now that you’re their boss.

The good news is that you can influence how much or how little you hear, and get more valuable insights from employee listening. 

And that’s what this article is about. You’ll learn what to avoid, what common measures don’t help that much, and what you can do to encourage more honesty and truth to come your way.

But let’s start with why it isn’t anybody’s fault and why even doing everything right is no guarantee.

Ian MacKenzie, Chief Operations & Technology Officer at St. James's Place Wealth Management

Why are we different in front of our boss? 

Human brains evolved to help us survive in times when we faced many threats from animals who were bigger and stronger than we were and had lethal weapons in their mouths and on their feet. We stood little chance against them unless we banded together.

So that’s what we did.

We became social creatures. You had to belong. You had to be part of a group to survive. Being cast out was a death sentence.

In an office, you won’t find many physical threats to your life.

But plenty of social ones.

And your brain doesn’t distinguish between them. Physical or social, a threat is a threat.

Damage to your social status and reputation has direct and indirect consequences for your current work, future career, and overall wellbeing.

Protecting your social status and reputation is crucial and genetically hard-wired. Your brain puts you on high alert when someone is around who holds sway over those.

Like your boss. Or your boss’s boss.

Trip up in their presence, make your boss look foolish in the eyes of her boss, go over their heads, or do anything else that could make them think less of you, are not an option.

That’s why you keep a tight watch over what you say and do when they’re around, and you think twice about sharing your ideas and concerns.

Your team is doing the same when you’re around.

Even former peers will be more guarded around you. Even if you’re not their boss.

It’s not because they don’t want to be honest and speak their truth to you, but because their instincts won’t let them.

Unless they feel safe enough to do so.

Getting them to feel safe around you is one of the hardest things to do as a leader.

There are so many ways of getting it wrong, so many measures that miss the point, and so many behaviours you need to get right.

And then there are still no guarantees that someone will speak up.

Because in the end, you can’t build trust, you can only create the conditions for trust to grow, and it’s entirely up to others whether they allow it to grow.

But don’t get discouraged. You can adopt the behaviours that’ll create the right conditions. With practice and in time, you may see some astonishing results.

But before we get to them, let’s examine what some people do that make matters worse.

Trust in the workplace: Care and trust statistic from Trust Factor by Paul Zak

5 Leadership styles that stifle employee voice

Human nature alone is enough to keep people from speaking their truth to their bosses, and every company has its share of people playing roles that make their team even more tight-lipped.

I’ll bet that if you’ve been working for even just a couple of years, you’ve met them all.

You may even have been one or all of them without being aware of it. That’s okay. You can only improve what you’re aware of, so what matters is how you proceed after reading this article.

1. The Chief Perception Officer

A Chief Perception Officer can’t hear anything that’s not in line with their perception of the company, its leadership team, or themselves.

They need to correct any perceived misperception and often won’t rest until they’ve convinced you — or you’ve given them the impression they succeeded.

Chief Perception Officers won’t hear truth because they won’t allow it.

2. The Positivity Terrorist

A Positivity Terrorist demands positivity.

They only want to hear positive things, regardless of reality.

They think they’re optimists, but optimism is accepting the truth of reality and still looking forward to a brighter future.

Positivity Terrorists won’t hear truth because they’re in denial about life also having bad stuff and demanding that everyone joins them in that denial.

3. The Problem Denier

A Problem Denier insists on “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.”

They don’t want to hear about problems. Full stop.

Problem Deniers won’t hear truth because the problem (pun intended) with insisting on solutions is that it keeps their team from surfacing issues they can’t solve on their own.

4. The Fixer

A Fixer takes over.

They want to know everyone involved and fix it by “having a word” with them.

Fixers won’t hear truth because you can’t just talk about something that bothered you without it them turning it into more of a problem than it is, escalating it way out of proportion.

5. The Faux Joker

A Faux Joker likes to make jokes. Usually at the expense of others.

Usually, they’re the only ones laughing. Apart from any sidekicks, that is.

From the mouth of someone with a higher status than the receiver, any humorous remark — positive or negative — can be taken as a veiled hint and create a lot of uncertainty and insecurity.

And humorous remarks that carry even a hint of sarcasm are particularly damaging. 

“Why insult someone when you can say something nice in a very sarcastic tone. Ha!!”

Faux Jokers won’t hear truth because they’re inherently unsafe to be around.


More training isn't the answer 

When team members don’t communicate well with their leaders or managers, common measures are to send them on training.

For example, communication training, training in giving and receiving feedback, or assertive communication training.

All these have merit when the problem is a lack of skills.

However, they don’t do much, if anything, when someone is perfectly capable of communicating with you but chooses not to.

In 99.9% of cases, that boils down to them not being comfortable sharing their ideas and concerns with their leaders. Either simply from their self-preservation instinct or exacerbated by their leader consciously or unconsciously playing one of the five roles that make talking to them even harder.

6 ways to hear more truth from your team 

For someone to speak their mind openly, they need to trust you, and they need to know — see, hear, feel — that you trust them.

That you know, they want to do a good job and know what they’re doing.

That you’re there to guide but not control them. 

That you’ll get them what they need to do their job and grow beyond it.

You can do a lot to show them that.

It takes building a track record of responding in a way that sends those messages.

If trust in the workplace is something that interests you, we've got a whole eBook on that. 

But these steps are a good place to start: 


1. Do less, be more

An open-door policy isn’t going to help when you’re not around. Physically or mentally.

Everything you do or don’t do sends a strong signal about what you genuinely care about.

When you’re constantly swamped with work and meetings, you’re sending a signal.

When you’re regularly postponing meetings with your team, you’re sending a signal.

When you’re always in a hurry to get from here to there, you’re sending a signal.

You’re signalling that everything is more important than your team is.

It doesn’t mean you need to be with them all the time.

It doesn’t mean you can’t tell them, “not now.”

It doesn’t mean you have to pamper them.

It does mean that you want to do less and be more. With them. Available to them. Present. In body and mind.

According to 'The Board's Oversight of Employee Voice' a report by State Street Global Advisors and the Ford Foundation, only 40% of board directors have direct exposure to frontline and junior employees.

2. Assume positive intent

This is a biggie.

And it isn’t easy.

With brains hard-wired for threat and problem detection, seeing the bad is so much easier than seeing the good.

It’s so easy to fall prey to judging and blaming when things don’t go as planned.

You’ll gravitate towards distrust. You'll want to seek out whoever caused the problem and give them a good talking to. To tighten your grip on the reigns. To take over. 

Don’t. Resist the urge. It’s just your fight or flight response kicking in.

Problems and challenges are opportunities to make significant strides in building your track record of responding like a true leader with faith in their team.

So, remind yourself that your team wants to do a good job.

That when things go wrong, that’s not what they set out to accomplish.

And that the only way to get anywhere in uncertain situations is to fail forward: to take action despite incomplete knowledge, to risk getting an outcome you don’t prefer, and to learn the lessons to be learned from the experience.

Pro tip: don’t focus on preventing what went wrong (unless lives are at stake), but on how to do more of what went right.

3. "Be curious, not judgemental" 

Make it your business to know what’s going on, with the work and with them.

A little genuine interest and attention go a long way to forge bonds that’ll make it easier for your team to open up.

So, show interest. Be curious. Ask questions, find out what they’re doing and what they’re experiencing at work and at home. 

Listen to their ideas and concerns. Ask for explanations that a 5-year old can understand.

It’ll help you understand their challenges, and better yet, it’ll help them get out of the weeds when they lose sight of the essence of what they’re doing.

In short: check in with them, don't check on them.  

Do it every day, not just when there are problems.

4. Listen to understand, not just to respond 

When you talk with your team, all of them or an individual, keep your mouth mostly shut.

Your job isn’t to give them the answer to their problems or to validate their ideas.

Your job is to help them think through whatever they’re raising with you so they can figure out an answer or validate their ideas themselves.

Simply listen, ask open questions to clarify your (and their!) understanding, utter “Oh?” and “So?” to draw out why something is important.

Quite often, pennies drop long before someone finishes what they came to tell you.

When it’s clear they’re getting themselves untangled, one of the most powerful questions to ask is, “What do you need from me?” It lets them decide what help they want.

5. Leaders can be coaches, too 

Leaning back and allowing someone to find their own solution takes courage.

It’s brave to allow your team to make mistakes when your reputation is on the line. 

It’s probably why coaching is the least used leadership style, despite the fact it can lead to extraordinary results because it brings the mind power of all your team to bear the job at hand, not just yours.

If you think you can’t do it in your situation, think again.

Coaching — proper coaching, not mentoring — is easier said than done. It’s surprisingly hard to refrain from giving advice and sticking to open, non-leading questions.

But at the same time, coaching doesn’t need be complex or time-consuming. Minutes can be sufficient to get someone unstuck or give them a transformative experience.

To learn how, check out Michael Bungay Stanier’s book on coaching for managers, called “The Coaching Habit.”

6. Become a Role Model

As the boss, you set the tone.

If you want your team to speak their mind and share more truth with you, you’ll have to go first. You’ll have to show up and be seen the Brené Brown way: as your genuine self, warts and all, and to keep doing it even when you regularly fall flat on your face.

That takes guts.

But you can’t expect your team to do it if you won’t.

Check out “The 10 Skills to Foster for Team-Oriented Workers & Leaders” for more information on what’s involved and what skills to practice.

Start hearing more of what matters 

Phew. That was a lot to take in.

But you made it down here, and now you know what stands in the way of and what can encourage hearing more truth from your team.

You know the roles to avoid.

You know how certain measures miss the point when it comes to using the skills they teach.

You know what you can do to encourage your team to speak their mind.

Yes, getting everything right is not a guarantee everyone will feel comfortable speaking up — their insecurities or mental makeup may present too high a hurdle.

But that’s no reason to get discouraged because one thing is guaranteed. Get it wrong, and you’ll only hear from the most courageous rebels (and some fools) who’ll speak their truth regardless.

Find out more about live and anonymous employee voice here, and the importance of psychological safety here. If you're interest in the subject of trust in the workplace more widely, we have an eBook all about it. 

Marjan Venema
Marjan Venema

Certified Content Marketing Expert, Connect with Marjan on LinkedIn

CultureHealthy companiesLeadershipEmployee voicePsychological safetyTrust

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